Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Heroes On Patrol: New Teen Titans #s 13-15

These days we fans talk a lot about how “dead means dead.” It’s not just your Hawkeyes, Hal Jordans, and Donna Troys -- seems like some of the most meaningful deaths in all of comics history are being reversed.

Not without precedent, mind you. For about ten years, Doom Patrol #121 (Sept.-Oct. 1968) represented one of those meaningful sacrifices. The Doom Patrol -- Elasti-Girl (no relation to The Incredibles), Robotman, Negative Man, and the Chief -- agreed to be blown up by their arch-enemies in the Brotherhood of Evil in order to save the tiny village of Codsville, Maine (population 14). Brotherhood members Monsieur Mallah and the Brain (no relation to Pinky) were also presumed dead. I realize that many of you are now thinking fondly of the Grant Morrison/Richard Case classic “The Soul Of A New Machine” (Doom Patrol v.2 #34, July 1990). In a way, this Titans arc made that story possible.

DP #121 also featured the book’s creative team, Arnold Drake and Bruno Premani, appearing at the beginning and end of the issue to encourage fans to show their support for the title, because it was being cancelled and only a dramatic sales spurt could save it. (Not quite Jason Todd, but maybe that’s another essay.) Eventually, in Showcase # 94, Aug.-Sept. 1977, it was revealed that a decent amount of Robotman had survived the blast, and in a rebuilt body, he became part of a new Doom Patrol.

However, he didn’t look so good on the striking cover of New Teen Titans #13 (Nov. 1981). As we already know, the Titans had split up, with the women taking a mostly-dead Gar Logan to Paradise Island for the benefits of Amazon medicine. The guys headed to Africa on the trails of Robotman and Steve Dayton, each of whom disappeared while tracking the remaining Brotherhood members.

We pick things up as Wonder Girl beats up a gang for stealing computer parts. (Being the early ‘80s, they were evidently big computer parts.) By the top of page two, she’s thrown a forklift at the crooks, and by the bottom of the page, they’re buried under a pile of crates. This is apparently Dark & Gritty Wonder Girl, still mad about being mind-controlled over the past few issues. However, she gets another couple of pages with her sweetheart, the ten-years-older Terry Long, to talk out her problems and exposit about Gar’s condition. The dialogue discusses Donna’s discomfort with how easily she was controlled, but the subtext is that she loves Terry because he’s just a regular guy.

On Paradise Island, Starfire is competing in the Kanga jousting tournament. As the name suggests, Kangas were giant mutant kangaroo-creatures which the Amazons rode for sport. (George Perez got rid of them when he revamped Wonder Woman, but Phil Jiminez may have brought them back.) Starfire’s warrior training helps her beat all the other kanga-riders, so then it’s on to the battle-staves (which Jiminez just referenced in the Return of Donna Troy miniseries). Flashing back more pictorially to her warrior training, Starfire defeats more Amazon opponents, reveling in her victory and swearing never to be “weak” again. This was turning into a recurring vow, unfortunately, and therefore starting to lose some of its impact. Imagine if Scarlett O’Hara had closed every meal with “As God is my witness...!”

As the volatile Starfire and the placid Raven each argue to Hippolyta that Paradise Island is most like their respective upbringings, trouble explodes (literally) on the hospital island. The Amazons’ restorative Purple Ray has driven Gar Logan insane, and he’s transformed into a brachiosaurus. Not to worry, though, because Raven calms him down with her powers. This effectively puts Gar on Ironic Punishment Island, surrounded by beautiful women but (because no man can touch the ground of Paradise Island) unable to run after them.

Even with all of that, the real meat of the issue starts with the guys’ discovery of Robotman, strung up as a warning in the jungles of Uganda. There’s some really lush Perez artwork here -- very dense and atmospheric. That’s appropriate, because despite their bright red-and-yellow costumes, Robin and Kid Flash are well-suited for spy work. Their colors blend well with the green surroundings, and some shadows even fall on Robin’s yellow cape as he skulks in a treetop (all day long...). Still, Cyborg has plenty to do, fixing up Robotman like Chewie repairing 3PO.

Aside from being worried about Gar, Cyborg’s also worried about his own ostensible sweetheart, the just-rescued Sarah Simms, to whom he didn’t have the chance to say goodbye before they jetted off. In retrospect, if Cyborg is the Titans’ “Thing,” Sarah was Alicia Masters, and he was always fretting she’d dump him for a normal guy.

Probably the character who comes off worst in this issue is Kid Flash, who waffles about whether to keep being a super-hero or just retire. His internal monologue tries to convince himself he’s not a coward, which pretty much signals to the reader that he just might be. (What would Geoff Johns think of that?) Wolfman and Perez admitted they didn’t know quite what to do with Wally, figuring him to be too powerful to be interesting, but ironically this issue gives him a nice couple of scenes. He zips into the Brotherhood’s vast underground lair, whips up a dust storm, knocks out a couple of armored goons, and zips back, all very professional. Later, after the heroes have found Steve Dayton, Kid Flash takes out half a goon squad, plus another half-dozen goons off-screen who were guarding Dayton’s old Mento equipment. Everyone escapes, but on the last page bad guys Madame Rouge and General Zahl gloat about Mento being their “inside man.”

NTT #14 (December 1981) is one of my favorite single issues, focusing equally on character and action. The Titans reunite, with special attention given to Robin and Wonder Girl, Raven and Kid Flash, and Changeling, Cyborg, Robotman, and Steve Dayton. Before too long, though, Dayton has started raving about his old Mento gear. Putting it on turns him into the Manchurian Candidate, lashing out using some kind of amplified mental energy.

As she did last issue, Raven’s empathic powers break the spell (giving Wolfman another chance to write “she takes your pains and makes them her own”). She hypmo-tizes Dayton into thinking he’s melting his wife (instead of Robotman), and the shock snaps him out of it. I describe this cavalierly, but the page itself is quite nice. Perez fills the panels with enough magic smoke and crackling psychic energy that you can almost smell the ozone, and tops it off (literally) with ghostly images of Raven, deep in concentration. This issue made me a Raven fan for life, or at least for as long as Perez drew her.

After a couple of brief interludes looking in on Rouge, Zahl, and their plan to take over Zandia, Dayton tells the Titans his story, including the origin of the Doom Patrol and his marriage to Rita Farr. In an odd coincidence, Madame Rouge disguised herself as Elasti-Girl to capture him -- which makes me think he’s really susceptible to images of his dead wife; but who am I to judge? Anyway, remembering his friends' deaths makes Changeling’s blood boil, and he flies off to get revenge on Rouge and Zahl.

Thinking about this particular story, I didn’t remember it fitting into the common Titans theme of “bad parents.” Steve Dayton wasn’t a bad parent, just an out-of-touch one. However, Gar’s angry soliloquy convinced me otherwise:
For years I’ve been suffering because I’ve virtually seen two sets of parents killed. [...] Now you want to guide me along and solve my problems for me like some surrogate parents ... but blast it -- I have to do this by myself or I’ll never feel like I’ve amounted to much of anything!
The Titans follow, but an earthquake interrupts them. Kid Flash and Raven find a crater where Rouge’s underground city was, and Gar sees the city flying past him under its own power. Changing back to human form, he hitches a ride on an outcropping as the city heads for the tiny Baltic island of Zandia.

”Baltic” is the key word here. It means that Rouge’s flying city has to travel from the southern half of Africa to Eastern Europe, over Sudan, Egypt, the Mediterranean Sea, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. Thus, when Gar remarks “If I saw what I was doing, I’d probably be sick over half of Africa!” he’s not far off. Good thing the next caption reads “Gar Logan holds firm ... nothing on Earth will make him release his iron-tight grip.” They’re making good time, too: Kid Flash remarks in the T-Jet “they’ll be out of Africa in minutes.”

Anyway, physics and logic aside, what follows is still a cool bit of carnage. Zahl’s armored goons attack Zandia, assassinating its president, destroying its records, and otherwise killing indiscriminately. The Titans arrive soon after, and at last Starfire gets to cut loose, but she’s overwhelmed by sheer numbers. A building falls on Wonder Girl. Changeling's iron-tight grip loosens. Raven and Kid Flash are hit by laser fire. Rouge, disguised as Gar, blasts the T-Jet out of the sky, and Changeling wakes up to find himself face-to-face with the Brain, Mallah, and the reconstituted Brotherhood of Evil.

As NTT #15 (January 1982) opens, the Titans (minus Gar) and Robotman are trapped in a “devolving pit” which is designed to reduce them to “primordial protoplasm” by “sinking through the evolutionary chain.” Yes, it’s just like that Star Trek episode, except about twelve years early. Meanwhile, as the goon squads clean up, narrative captions reveal Rouge’s plot. Seems Zandia is a government of criminals, by criminals, and for criminals, so no one will complain that she’s just overthrown it for her own evil purposes.

Back with the new Brotherhood, Gar gets the unfamiliar members to show off their powers as he attacks each of them. There’s Plasmus, the German (”Ja, I do so mit pleasure, herr Brain!”), who’s all oozy and burny; Warp, the French teleporter (”With zee proper coordinates I can create zee warp”), Phobia (who I think is British, but this story may not say that), who controls fear; and Houngan, who has combined the voodoo of the past with the technology of today -- or at least 1981. Houngan sticks an electronic needle in a cybernetic imitation of Gar’s cellular structure, and Gar’s leg erupts in pain.

The Brain tells Gar that because he made Rouge evil, she always wanted to destroy him, so once she killed the DP, he knew he was next and faked his and Mallah’s deaths. In a nutshell, the BoE is eager to take out Rouge and Zahl, so they call a truce with Gar, and warp away to Rouge’s headquarters.

The brutish Titans are pounding on Robotman when the Brotherhood shows up and starts killing everything in sight. Rouge skedaddles, but is met by an angry Changeling. Robotman uses Cyborg’s white-sound blaster (would a lower setting help you sleep? I wonder) to blast his way out of the devolution pit, and presto, all the Titans are back to normal, not a blue-black hair out of place. It's nice when the villain's trap contains its own reset button.

The ensuing fights contain many neat little bits. Raven heals a wounded Mallah, but Mallah then ventilates a goon about to skrag her. Raven screams “Don’t kill him! Don’t make a mockery of my life!” As if he’s on the same page philosophically as well as literally, Cyborg muses on his love of smashing, “Does the savage they brought out in me still control my thoughts?” Likewise, Starfire snits to Wonder Girl, “I’m not killing them, if that is what you want to know! But they deserve death, Wonder Girl....”

Cyborg also gets a very cool sequence where he’s blasted off the city’s ledge into mid-air, catches himself with an extendable hand, swings in between two flying goons, and retracts himself out of the way as they smash into each other.

Perez ultimately switches to long shots of the action, showing isolated panels of Robin and Robotman, Starfire and Wonder Girl, and Phobia and Kid Flash mopping up. Zahl knows he’s in trouble, and finally flees, with Robotman on his heels. Zahl shoots Robotman, but is himself killed by a ricocheting bullet. Changeling chases Rouge into the self-destruct room, knocking her away from the proverbial red button into another panel, which she hits with a SKRAKKK! and some Kirby Krackles. As Rouge dies, she spits that she’s finally free of the Brain’s evil, and urges Gar to get everyone off the island before it explodes. They do, it does, and the Titans and Brotherhood part warily. When Gar and Robotman are reunited with Steve Dayton, Wolfman and Perez provide a heartfelt epilogue which honors both the Doom Patrol and their creators.

Dead for about 13 years at this point, a couple of Doom Patrollers would stay dead for a few years more. In his 1987 Doom Patrol revival, Paul Kupperberg brought both the Chief and Negative Man back; and in his celebrated run on the title, Grant Morrison put both characters center stage. Still, for almost twenty years, the Doom Patrol was defined by the martyrdom of its founders, and this arc mined that history quite well. I have never read Doom Patrol #121, but if it's half as affecting as this arc makes out, it must be pretty special.

As far as the Titans went, this arc kicked off its second year impressively. If the Trigon story helped establish the Titans as more than just a junior JLA, this one grounded them in the larger sweep of DC history. Although the Doom Patrol never had the glitz of the Justice League or even the staying power of the Challengers of the Unknown, they were honored in death for their heroic sacrifice. Accordingly, this arc reminded readers that Gar Logan’s heritage was comparable to that of his Justice League-derived colleagues.

Still, having delivered an epic both in terms of physical scope and temporal reach, Wolfman and Perez had filled the first year with extended storylines, and were ready for more personal stories.

Next: Young lovers, old friends, and a new Dr. Light...?

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