Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Do The Twist: New Teen Titans #s 16-20

In 1987, George Perez told Comics Interview that because Kid Flash was "so super fast, technically if handled correctly, he'd make the rest of the characters superfluous. [...] So he never was my favorite character, only because he was just difficult to handle in a group situation." Still, although this essay's five issues are all self-contained, three feature Wally.

Not at first, though; New Teen Titans #16 (February 1982) was a Starfire spotlight. After Robin tells Starfire he just wants to be friends (workplace relationships are never good), she soon meets someone new. Franklin Crandall is a fresh-faced not-at-all-stalker who happens to wander into Donna's photo studio during one of Kory's shoots, and hangs around staring at Kory for an hour. Donna approves cautiously, wanting Kory to remember her ecretsay identityway. (Kory wears sunglasses to cover her green, pupil-less eyes, because those are apparently her only distinguishing characteristics.) Besides, we know from the cover that Franklin probably won't make it through the issue.

A lot of ink establishes Kory's "innocence" in social situations, setting up her heart to be broken. When we learn Franklin is a H.I.V.E. operative, right after he and Kory have been talking about a big announcement, it looks like the jig is up. However, in the meantime, someone's kidnapped one of Donna's other models, the girlfriend of a local thug who's testifying against a local gangster. Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, and Wonder Girl rescue the model, with Starfire using a little more juice than necessary to take out the gangster; then, it's off to meet Franklin.

Too late. In a second twist that's neither telegraphed nor unprecedented, Franklin's told his H.I.V.E. handler (Dr. Willis Darrow, a name unfamiliar to both me and Google) where to stick it, and gotten shot for his trouble. The Titans arrive at Franklin's apartment in time for him to croak out his killer's address, and also that he loves Kory. (Not to be callous here, but it's a good thing he does die, since Kory calls her teammates "Dick" and "Donna.") As Kory weeps over Franklin, Dick tries to calm her down, but she backhands him (SWAK!) and rockets off. Cyborg stays behind to tend to Robin, and Wonder Girl throws herself in front of Darrow before Starfire can administer the coup de grace. As Starfire wails "It's not fair!" and Wonder Girl sympathizes, Darrow gets away, but is later found with six new bullet holes. Dick and Donna agree that Kory need never know the truth about Franklin (how they know isn't quite explained -- possibly from evidence in his apartment?) -- it's important only that he died loving her. Perez closes the issue with a wordless last page showing Kory crying herself to sleep and Donna tucking her in, capped with a closeup of Franklin's photo on Kory's nightstand.

Although this story doesn't seem to have much resonance beyond using the H.I.V.E. as villains du jour, in hindsight it foreshadows "The Judas Contract" -- but I'm getting ahead of myself by about two dozen issues. I'm still not convinced it shows how Kory is innocent in social situations and bloodthirsty otherwise. She says Tamaranians are governed by their emotions, but does that mean she's all id? It's a question that deserves more space than we have here.

Moving on. New Teen Titans #17 (March 1982) introduced Frances Kane, Wally's Blue Valley College classmate, and eventually an important recurring character. She may even be Wally's Yoko, but again, two years too early for that. When we meet her, Wally's putting the moves on, but the study date he sets up gets sidetracked by her mom's weird Von Doom-esque attempts to contact the spirit world. Seems that ever since Fran survived the car accident that killed her dad and brother, her mom's been into seances. Fran meekly dons her own red hooded robe (!) and sits down in Mom's pentagram, and then almost everything not nailed down starts flying towards them. In the confusion, Wally changes to Kid Flash and tries to minimize the damage, but after the big appliances start crashing through the walls, Fran comes out of her trance and the maelstrom stops. Wally changes back to street clothes, Mom condemns Fran for not dying too, and Wally calls in Raven.

When Raven visits a week later, the same thing happens, but this time Raven's soul-self contains the damage and calms Fran down. Two weeks after that, the rest of the Titans (minus Starfire, still grieving) have strapped Fran into the Exorcist II-model diagnostic chair at what I took to be the Blue Valley STAR Labs. Again, all hell breaks loose and a weird energy-form starts rising from Fran's body. Mom is clearly sympathetic: "Take her, Satan! Take her and kill her." Suddenly, everything's back to normal, but Mom has had enough, and disowns Fran.

Finally, while most of the group is with Fran at Titans' Tower, Cyborg is at STAR Labs (NYC) figuring out that Fran's eruptions have something to do with magnetism. (Duh, we say in hindsight, but Wolfman and Perez have done a fair job of building suspense.) This time the attack is the biggest yet, as the energy-creature blows the Titans out a fifth-floor window. It grows to about twice the size of Titans' Tower and then goes after Manhattan. The more powerful Titans head off to save the city while Robin and Raven try to make it back inside to Frances. After a few pages of frantic activity -- including Tyrannosaurus Changeling getting smacked with a flying cruise ship -- Cyborg appears in the nick of time with an "anti-magnetic reverser" which clamps onto Frances' head and shuts down the magnetic storm. In Epilogue I, Wally and Fran share a tender moment; and in Epilogue II, we peek into another dimension to see it was all Doctor Polaris' doing (trying to escape after the Wolfman-written Green Lantern #135 (Dec. 1980)). So, to sum up: Frances was susceptible to Polaris' manipulations because she had excess magnetic waves in her brain, but it looks like Cyborg's device has rendered Fran powerless and closed that particular dimensional door.

New Teen Titans #18 (April 1982) brought back Leonid "Starfire" Kovar, a Soviet super-hero created by Wolfman and NTT editor Len Wein for Teen Titans #18 (November-December 1968). This time the focus on Kid Flash was a little more negative. After his son is killed in El Salvador by American troops, a bitter Soviet functionary infects a young Russian woman named Maladi (rhymes with "toddy," no doubt) Malanova with a radioactive disease and sends her to New York. The Kremlin orders Kovar to find her and kill her. King Faraday tells the Titans to keep an eye on Kovar, because they don't know why he's coming or how he fits into rumors about a "plague-carrier."

Maladi, unaware herself of her condition, starts infecting people, but their symptoms only start manifesting around the time Kovar comes to town. Although this is good enough to convince Kid Flash that Kovar's the plague-carrier, the other Titans aren't so sure, especially after spotting the plague-ravaged Maladi. Still, when they see Kovar after Maladi, Starfire and Kid Flash attack. Kovar tries to reason with the Titans, but Kid Flash's constant needling pushes him over the edge and he gets away. Maladi thinks she has a meeting with another agent, so Kovar intends to kill her then. The Titans show up too, and while most of the team keeps Kovar busy, Raven tries unsuccessfully to heal Maladi. Robin convinces Kovar to let Maladi die in a hospital.

Everyone's pretty down about Maladi dying, although all of her victims have been cured. Nevertheless, while Kovar considered his mission a mercy-killing, for Kid Flash it's emblematic of the Evil Empire. When Kovar tells Wally he volunteered for the mission, Wally sneers, "To get some blasted medals when you got home?" Kovar says no, he volunteered because he loved Maladi. They were engaged, and the day she died was supposed to be their wedding day. Not that Perez's art wasn't its usual high quality throughout the issue, but his best panel is the penultimate one, showing a completely flabbergasted and humiliated Kid Flash.

Plot holes aside (mostly dealing with the mechanics of Maladi's disease), this was a real stunner of a story. It showed that Wolfman and Perez were willing to make one of their characters the bad guy, even if it was the one they found the least interesting. Today, of course, we're pretty far removed from the Cold War politics portrayed here, so at the time Wally's attitude might not have seemed as extreme. Still, it's hard to say whether Wally is "out of character" here, because overt political statements were still fairly new in superhero comics. The Perez-drawn Justice League of America #186 (January 1981) featured a Flash distrustful of working with Soviet scientists, so maybe Wally picked up his self-described "midwestern conservative" politics from his uncle. Anyway, for purposes of this issue, Wally was basically a dissenting voice that made the final plot twist most effective. He'd be rehabilitated in a couple of issues anyway.

The next issue, New Teen Titans #19 (May 1982), may have acquired a kind of retroactive infamy thanks to Identity Crisis. If I understood Brad Meltzer correctly at Comic-Con '04, it's the start of Light's post-lobotomy phase. Moreover, NTT #18 guest-starred Hawkman, who's now the poster child for mind-wiping super-villains.

Obviously, there's none of that subtext in the issue itself. In fact, it aims to be pretty insubstantial. While Carter (Hawkman) Hall oversees an exhibit of Indian avatar statues, Dr. Light decides to break out of jail. Light's heard that the Riddler has escaped and doesn't want his own reputation to suffer by comparison. Teleporting back to the Fearsome Five's hideout for a spare costume, he resolves not to attack super-heroes anymore, because it brings too much trouble. Besides, there's more money in thievery. Naturally, he tries to steal from the Indian exhibit, but ends up bringing some giant Indian statues to life and also running into Hawkman. At first expecting that the statues will obey him as slaves (a good, funny moment), he flees when they don't, eventually luring them to Titans' Tower. He figures one or the other group will be destroyed, so it's a win-win for him. The Titans and Hawkman stop the avatars, and Light is sent back to jail -- but not before a last, sinister look from Hawkman. (It promises some unique punishment which we don't see. Was this Meltzer's opening? We may never know.)

Aside from the jokes at Light's expense, this issue also touched on Starfire's continued grief over Franklin's death, Cyborg's inability (since issue #13) to communicate with Sarah Simms, and Raven's frustration with Azarath for teaching her not to feel the strange Earth emotion of love. It also had a funny exchange between Changeling and Cyborg:

Gar: She was this mousy-looking librarian -- then she let down her hair, took off her glasses...
Vic: And she was still a mousy-looking librarian, right?
Gar: Yeah. So I dated her sister. Wotta dish.

Trust me, in the larger scope of Titans jokes, that was comedy gold.

As it turned out, New Teen Titans #20 (June 1982) would also become an historical curiosity, considering how later writers treated Wally West's parents. Here they're the harmless beneficiaries of Wally's letter-writing narration (tm Hawkeye Pierce) as he details the Titans' fight against a teenaged criminal. The Disruptor wants to kill each Titan using a super-suit which "disrupts the natural flow of things," including super-powers. Disruptor's dad, former Bat-villain "Brains" Beldon, figures this will be his entree into The H.I.V.E., which (we learn) is made up of criminal scientists.

Captured by the Disruptor, Kid Flash sees that the kid just wants to please his demanding father. When the Titans come to the rescue, the super-suit is pretty effective against most of them, but Raven envelops Disruptor in her soul-self and shows him the hellish life he's sure to lead if he doesn't repent. Raven then compares "Brains'" parenting skills to Trigon's. Even after the Disruptor refuses to rat out Dad, "Brains" still blames his son's defeat for his being turned down for H.I.V.E. membership, and disowns him. (Later, of course, "Brains" will find love with Frances Kane's mother.) All this makes Wally realize that it's not bad to be "normal" -- a few years before "Hip To Be Square," mind you -- and instead of mailing the letter, speeds off to Blue Valley to deliver it in person.

Ongoing subplot watch: although Sarah Simms visited Terry Long at the end of last issue, Cyborg still hasn't spoken to her, despite the Titans throwing him a 19th-birthday party. Robin berates himself for not being as good a detective as Batman. Wonder Girl ponders her real origins, and Starfire pines for her homeworld and family. NTT #20 also features a very short, ostensibly wacky backup wherein Wolfman and Perez get zapped to Earth-1 to meet the Titans. It's superficially reminiscent of Roy Thomas' Impossible Man story from Perez's Fantastic Four run, and it even has a Stan Lee cameo.

With this group of issues, Wolfman and Perez started reaching outside the Titans for stories which used the team as a backdrop. Even the spotlights on Starfire and Kid Flash were arguably more about Franklin, Frances, and the Disruptor. Except (ironically) for the Dr. Light issue, each story dealt its guest a tragic twist of fate, either involving a familial betrayal or a lost love. Still, the issues are different enough from each other that I can't accuse Wolfman and Perez of ripping themselves off, and especially in #16 and #18 they are able to misdirect the reader. However, the Titans' own subplots were starting to loiter, especially with regard to Cyborg and Starfire, and at times it felt like they got only lip service so the reader wouldn't think they'd been forgotten.

Next up: Origins galore, as Wolfman and Perez present the four-issue Tales of the New Teen Titans!


Captain Qwert Jr said...

Catnip for teenagers aren't they? All action and emotion.

Tom Bondurant said...

Plus the art, which I guess goes along with the action. #19 really has some fine Perez detail work.

Anonymous said...

(Dr. Willis Darrow, a name unfamiliar to both me and Google)

Titans Index#5 notes him as former Superman foe.

Tom Bondurant said...

Alert reader John McDonagh tells me he debuted in Action Comics #152. The Michael Fleisher Great Superman Book lists him as "Dr. Dorrow," but close enough. He promised the underworld he'd get rid of Superman for $1,000,000.00, which sounds like a future HIVE leader to me.