Sunday, May 28, 2006

This Is Your Brain On New Teen Titans #s 26-27

Something about these two issues just discourages me from reading them. Not that they're bad; probably that I've read them so much and I just want to get on with the rest of NTT Year 3, which is more soap-operatic. However, this time I think I may have figured out where they fit into the bigger picture.

(You have probably already done so, but humor me.)

Since these were the issues that put the Titans on Nancy Reagan's just-say-no radar, it's easy to look at them as devoted completely to gritty, street-level explorations of serious teen problems. However, they're also filled with standard superhero subplot maintenance. In particular, New Teen Titans #26 (December 1982) is a very busy issue.

Its first few pages get the Titans back to Earth and, in so doing, establish that Starfire and Robin are free to see each other. (Why this was an issue is never spelled out, except for Dick's statement that he had just put the nail in the coffin of his last relationship, and a bit in the lettercolumn about Batman writer Gerry Conway giving Dick/Kory his blessing. Not to get all inside-baseball, but I thought it was curious.)

There's also a short sequence introducing Terra, an earth-controlling terrorist who tries to destroy the Statue of Liberty before Changeling runs her off. She's not an insignificant threat, either. Although she doesn't do any damage to the statue, her geological feats include creating and animating a rock monster (or, as Fred Schneider might say, a "ro-oooo-ck monn-sterrr!") and escaping using her own mini-volcano.

As for the runaways themselves, I will not make fun of their plights, and they are treated very earnestly and respectfully. Unfortunately, Mike Taylor, the one who looks most stuck in the late '70s, is the first to die. He leaves his mother because she beats him; Lizzie Angelo is kicked out by her dad because she's pregnant; and Luis Gomez just wants to make a big score -- his parents plead for him to stay. Eventually (we are told that "several weeks" pass between pages), Mike tries to hold up Adrian Chase and his wife. Dick and Kory witness this while in line for a Broadway show, but they hold off on helping because of secret identity concerns. Chase stops Mike, but during the struggle Mike gets away and runs out into the street, where he's hit by a car and killed immediately.

While out with classmates, Raven senses Lizzie's pain, and she and Cyborg take Lizzie to a shelter. Chase is there as well, wanting the Titans to help him bust a drug ring which uses teenagers. In a later scene where Chase briefs the team, Robin gets a strong Batman vibe from an intense Chase.

Luis surfaces as a waiter for Chase's target, mobster Anthony Scarapelli. However, he fingers another teenager, Paul Taylor, who's been skulking around the fringes of the story, and Paul gets a beating from Scarapelli's men. He manages to get to Cyborg's apartment, where the Titans find him.

If that sounds like a lot of characters and plot, it is, but everything's balanced out nicely and nothing really feels forced or shortchanged, even though Mike and Paul aren't named until issue #27 (January 1983). In this issue, things get a little clearer after Raven heals Paul, who reveals (shock!) he's Mike's brother. Back at the runaway shelter, the Titans run into Roy Harper, who's working as a civilian liaison between law enforcement agencies. Remind me again -- how old is Roy, and how long has it been since Black Canary got him off heroin? Is this a civil-service job? (Actually, since Roy was involved with Great Frog, a band of Driveshaft-level popularity, maybe it's an Elvis-meets-Nixon circumstance.) Of course, Roy and the Titans are old friends, and Roy talks back to Adrian Chase, who has popped up again.

Blah blah blah, Paul's not spilling what he knows because he wants in on the bust, Raven pulls it out of his mind, the Titans get ready to rumble, Roy puts his Speedy costume on again, and the big drug distribution network, she is smashed.

Now, that's a pretty flip way to summarize the rest of the issue, when it really deserves a little more. Sprinkled throughout were one-page, nine-panel "interludes" showing snapshots of the various runaways' recruitment. The issue opens with Luis recruiting one Sylvester Johnson, a fairly innocent-looking kid who by the second interlude has become Luis' right-hand man. When Sylvester ends up killed in a crossfire during the Titans' bust, it's a slow-motion moment that crystallizes the scene. Considering that Sylvester has, to this point, been a fairly minor figure, Wolfman and Perez still get some pathos out of his death.

And that, I think, is the point of the arc in a nutshell. Essentially, the runaway teens introduced in these two issues are meant to come into the Titans' lives without a lot of buildup, but they still get their share of dignity. In a way, the kids even feel more "real" for their brief appearances -- if they'd turned into recurring characters, it might have cheapened them somewhat.

In fact, though, Lizzie is perhaps an unintentional foreshadowing of Tara Markov, who will get a much bigger role in the book starting with #28. Lizzie and Tara both have the same shade of four-color-blonde hair, big eyes, and freckles, although Lizzie is a little younger. I never found the Titans quite believable as teenagers, and having Perez draw Lizzie realistically for her age emphasized that.

Still, this story was meant to show the Titans as teens, dealing with the problems of kids just a few years younger, and for that it does a decent job. The exposition about runaway shelters doesn't sound sufficiently "More You Know"-ish to be distracting, either. I didn't read these issues when they first came out (I borrowed a friend's a couple of years later), but only now do I realize I would have been in the target age for this story. That's a little sobering.

Next issue: Terra's back, Speedy's still around, and the Brotherhood of Evil returns!

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