Sunday, August 13, 2006

Terra Incognito: New Teen Titans #s 32-34 and Annual #2

In terms of plot, New Teen Titans #32 (June 1983) is pretty unremarkable. It's the story of two Vietnamese brothers, Siamese twins Gan and Tavis (or "Thunder and Lightning"), who use their weather-control powers to bust up Saint Louis looking for an American ex-GI. Considering this was the early '80s, it's not too far of a stretch to suppose the boys had a personal connection with Lt. Walter Williams, and in fact I doubt few were surprised to learn he's their dad. At least for now, Williams isn't a Bad Father, but his genetic experiments gave them their powers, which are also killing them.

Gan and Tavis think their powers came from their mom's exile to a mystic island (shades of Arella) where they were separated. The local shaman said their dad's blood would cure them, so they came to the States looking for him. However, the Army has no record of him in the 'Nam because officially, he wasn't there. Much of the issue consists of G & T fighting the Army and/or the Titans, all the while pleading for their dad and warning everyone they can't control their powers. The issue ends with the brothers referred to STAR Labs, and a few plot threads (including Dad's whereabouts) left hanging until a promised follow-up. And that, my friends, may be the shortest plot synopsis I've done for these here recaps.

That's because the real meat of this issue is in the Titans' interactions. Augmented by Speedy, Terra, and Frances Kane, the group's headed from Zandia, where by the way Raven just tried to kill them all. It's a tense flight: Dick's ready to quit, Raven says she should quit, Wally (shooting her a dirty look) silently agrees, and Terra's mad no one will tell her their secret identities. Before they all go their separate ways, Starfire blasts Speedy when he tries to kiss her, so that's pretty funny. Wolfman and Perez do a great Speedy, I have to say. Anyway, Robin's off to Gotham, Speedy goes to Washington, and Fran returns to Blue Valley before the Titans face Thunder & Lightning. In another bit of subplot maintenance, Donna and Vic compare notes on her potential engagement to Terry (she still hasn't said yes yet) and Sarah Simms' apparent engagement to someone other than Vic.

And that's issue #32 -- pretty straightforward, with the team divisions taking a backseat to a couple of antagonists who could have been Titans themselves. New Teen Titans #33 (July 1983) is also pretty decent on its own terms, with a still Robin-less group trying to figure out the mystery behind the death of new villain Trident. Three pairs of Titans each faced Trident, but outside of costume and powers, there seem to be no commonalities between any of their encounters. Leave it to Koriand'r, who hears about 5 minutes' worth of recap, to solve the mystery (SPOILER!) it was three different guys, and when one betrayed the others, they iced him.

This issue has even less macro-plot advancement than last time, but it makes up for that in little moments. Aqualad appears at the very beginning of the issue to haul Dead Trident out of the river, and stops just short of asking "do I leave my trash on your doorstep?" Kid Flash and Terra bond while trying to stop a Trident from trashing a drive-in movie (showing E.T.). Changeling turns into a shark to "attack" Terra in the swimming pool, so she socks him in the nose. Starfire, looking for Robin, finds red-haired pre-Crisis Jason Todd at Wayne Manor instead. Terra gets scared that the Titans will kick her off the team. Finally, we learn that Robin is back with Adrian Chase, trying to make drug charges stick against mobster Anthony Scarapelli. (You'll remember him from the "Runaways" arc.)

Since a lot of this issue takes place with the Titans lounging around comparing notes, Perez's skill at portraying "casual" almost goes unnoticed, but that in itself is a compliment. An early poolside scene in Titans' Tower recalls a similar one at Steve Dayton's mansion in #2, but unlike that one, Perez has the characters move more, swimming through panels and even popping up in each other's scenes. There is motion, but it's the motion of relaxation, if that makes sense, and it's choreographed pretty well. (Oh, and by the way -- Cyborg in "casual mode" apparently means Cyborg without the utility belt.)

The only glitches are in Raven's fight scenes, where apparently she has the power to change clothes while teleporting; and in a later scene that stops the issue dead. After Kory tells the group duh, it's more than one guy, Terra calls her "golden globes" and questions her intelligence. In the next few panels, Vic and Donna jump down Terra's throat for being insensitive, and Kory laments that on Tamaran, what's in your heart matters more than your degree. Donna and Kory then hug it out.

It's not that Terra wasn't rude, but Kory taking offense here always seemed kind of disproportionate, even whiny, to me. For one thing, Kory has never been the thinker of the group, consistently proud of letting her emotions guide her. Furthermore, the Titans' banter is filled with good-natured ribbing, on the order of "rust-bucket" and "salad-head." No jabs at intelligence, true, but it's not like they never tease each other. Finally, in this very issue, Terra got only mildly rebuked for suggesting that Trident's death was a no-harm, no-foul circumstance. Spending more time (and more page space) making sure she didn't hurt Kory's feelings therefore seemed misplaced, and disrupted the issue's flow to a greater extent than it really should have.

Perhaps to make it up to her, the Titans throw Terra a 16th birthday party in New Teen Titans #34 (August 1983). Tara says she's "never had a birthday party before," which is kind of suspicious given that she didn't spend all her time either with the Titans or being held hostage by terrorists. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, since this issue deserves a bit more attention.

Pages 1 and 2 reintroduce Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson and his manservant Wintergreen. Beefcake shots of Slade in a Speedo are perhaps the highlight of the sequence, as Slade ruminates on his next assignment ("Project 'T'"), his kids (Grant died in issue #2, but here's a photo of the curly-haired other one), and his wife ("one helluva marksman," in a panel that seems to emphasize his eyepatch).

Pages 3-4 begin Tara's party, but when the singing stops, Kid Flash ambles, almost unnoticed, into another room. Tara's lost in thought too, although she complains again that she still hasn't been let fully into the team's confidences. A narrative caption establishes that Tara's been with the group for "several months" (officially since #30, which was New Year's Eve), and while it doesn't seem like that long, reading the issues in a batch, this issue itself plays a little funny with the timeline.

Case in point: when we left Robin and Adrian Chase last issue, they were smashing through a window at Anthony Scarapelli's mansion. Now, on pages 5-6, it's morning, and while Deathstroke's covering the Speedo and the Titans are celebrating Tara, Robin and Chase are fighting Scarapelli's goons. Why, you ask? It comes out that Chase, the district attorney, has a warrant to search the mansion for any illegal guns. Scarapelli doesn't have a gun license, so when he pulls a gun on Chase, that's apparently enough for Robin, the deputized law enforcement official, to arrest him.

From my hazy memories of criminal law and procedure classes (and old "Law & Order" episodes), there are many problems with this plan, not the least of which is Chase's insertion of himself right in the middle of the facts. Scarapelli's defense attorney could at least argue that Chase's vendetta against Scarapelli has tainted the investigation into Scarapelli's "legitimate business activities" enough to get Chase off the case and perhaps get a change of venue. Speaking of venue, I thought Robin was only a deputy of the Gotham City Police Department, although spending time in NYC with the Titans, he might have gotten deputized by the NYPD as well. Still, I wouldn't think that a Gotham cop could make an arrest for a New York crime, but that's getting a little outside my expertise.

In any event, this little exchange confirms for Robin that Chase is muy loco, and at the bottom of page 6 we head back to the party. Tara is really playing the "I had a hard life" tune on the world's smallest violin, but Wonder Girl ("We know your parents were killed, but that's not unique in this group"), Starfire ("I was a slave for almost five years") and Raven put it in perspective.

On her way out the door to meet Terry Long, Wonder Girl stops by a mopey Kid Flash. The Titans have been using code names throughout, but when he reveals he's leaving the group, she responds with "Wally," and he with "Donna." It's a nice moment, with Wally telling her "you always seem to know what to say and do." Thus is Donna's queen-of-nice reputation solidified.

On page 8, Deathstroke stakes out his Wall Street target. This gives Donna enough time to get to Terry's "city community college" classroom on page 9, and accept his proposal in front of the brazen little hussy who wants some "private tutoring ... just you and me. Oh, and the Greeks, of course." No time for you, tramp; Terry has to smooch his barely-legal fiancee! (To be fair, Wolfman and Perez might well have intended Donna to be 19 at this point, and "married at 19" does sound a smidge better than "married at 18," but not by much. Oh, and Terry is a community-college professor? How did I fail to notice that over these many, many years?)

While Donna and Terry walk through the park on page 10 (next to the Elderly Couple Who Still Remember Young Love), back at Titans' Tower, the party's winding down, and the airing of the grievances has begun. Tara's revved up her angry body language, all finger-pointy and adrenaline-charged: "Either I'm a Titan and I get to know everything, or I walk." After Changeling says something that basically boils down to "oh, g'wan," Tara amends her threat to "one week" -- and then she's outta there! "Mebbe the JLA'll hire me." Raven and Starfire try to help too, but just as quickly, she's feeling rejected again: "Lord, I can't take it anymore. I've been kicked outta everything I ever really wanted."

The phone gets Gar out of the drama. It's Sarah Simms, hoping to plead with Vic to save her from her deluded, abusive ex-boyfriend Mark, who thinks he's still engaged to her. However, because Vic believed Mark's fantasy about said engagement, he's mad at Sarah and won't take her call. No problem -- Sarah knees Mark in his special area (FAM!) and throws him out of her apartment. Aaand we're up to the top of page 13 ... but let's go back to Tara's tantrum.

Honestly, the moment she said "JLA," I think a lot of readers in the Titans' place would have said "Okay, right this way to the teleport tube! You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!" Now, there are good in-story reasons why they didn't do that, among them the oft-repeated notion that they are Their Own People, not beholden to their League mentors. Furthermore, the Titans appear to be all about creating new familial bonds to replace or supplant the ones fractured by their troubled childhoods -- which, incidentally, helps explain Wally's imminent departure. They do want to "hug it out," and convince Tara to stay, almost as if her rejection of them would start another cycle of "what's wrong with us?" Why indeed wouldn't Tara Markov, little match girl practically straight from Dickens, with the power to manipulate volcanoes, want to stay with such a supercool group as the New Teen Titans? Conversely, why wouldn't the Titans, who have known Tara for lo these many months, want to take her into their bosom? (Insert Starfire joke here.)

Therefore, the whole thing seems kind of preordained, even before Deathstroke shows up on the viewscreen, demanding the Titans trade themselves for an anonymous stockbroker (just like Sarah Simms in #10). Terra and Changeling take the call, and Gar's ready to go, but Terra knocks him out and races off on her own. Wally watches her go ("Maybe she's found someone she hasn't insulted today. Strange kid.") but then he hears Gar call for help....

Terra gets pages 15-17 alone fighting the Terminator, but lucky for her the other Titans appear on page 18. Unfortunately, on page 19 Deathstroke gets the drop on a slightly-slower Kid Flash, knocking him cold. With a sword at the speedster's throat, things look grim, but then Terra buries Deathstroke in a mound of earth and Starfire rescues Kid Flash. Deathstroke vanishes in an explosion, and the other Titans congratulate Terra. Kid Flash saved her life on page 18, and now she's returned the favor. Tears in her eyes, she excuses herself.

At the top of page 21, Cyborg, Changeling, Kid Flash, and Starfire all agree that Terra should be a full member of the team. However, one panel later, we're back in the apartment where Terra told Gar she'd been held captive. "They swallowed everything," she tells the shadowy figure she meets there. "They didn't know it's all been a set-up. They didn't suspect the terrorists work for you. They don't suspect that I've been planted in their stupid group." And there, in the lamplight, is Deathstroke.

(I know, at least 95% of you knew that was coming, but I'm taking this at face value!)

The rest of page 22 has Robin chewing out Chase over being used. After he storms out of Chase's apartment, Chase's wife Doris worries about their safety. Also, look at this clown doll Uncle Arthur sent our boy Adam!

"My God, Doris -- I don't have an uncle..."


And with that, we take a break from Terra's story for New Teen Titans Annual #2 (1983). It's what the TV folks would call a backdoor pilot, in which a character is introduced to be spun off into his own series. Here the character is the new Vigilante, a cross between the Punisher (gritty gun-toting urban crimefighter) and Deathstroke (mercenary with a sleek Perez-designed costume), and most of the story services his origin.

As backdoor pilots go, it's not bad, although it does put the Terra subplot on the back burner. I wonder if this Annual was meant to be the resolution of Terra's story, but the logistics of launching the new Vigilante series knocked Terra out of the spotlight for another several months. Probably not, since the Annual does advance Robin's subplot about his differences from Batman, and that plays into the Terra plot too. In other subplot maintenance, Raven finds out she's been barred from Azarath forever, I suppose for calling them a bunch of do-nothing peaceniks back around issue #5.

With his family dead from the bombing, Chase leaves the country to recuperate. The Annual's main plot finds Robin taking up Chase's cause, only slightly less willing to bend the law to bring Scarapelli to justice. However, he's chastised by Wonder Girl, who says the Titans won't break the law for him. Scarapelli has problems of his own -- targeting Chase has put him in the doghouse with Donna Omicidio, the godmother (?) of the local mob, who wants to schedule a performance review ... with extreme prejudice, if you get my drift. To protect himself (mostly from Omicidio, he says), Scarapelli goes to the Monitor for some super-powered muscle. Said muscle ambushes the Titans, who really get taken to the cleaners before being saved by a mysterious sniper. Later, at the "performance review," Scarapelli's Monitor-supplied shock troops ambush Omicidio's men, but the Titans try to calm things down. Scarapelli gets away to his mansion and is accosted there by the sniper, revealed as that guy in the black suit from the cover. He unmasks before Scarapelli and (surprise!) it's Adrian Chase, ready to gun down Scarapelli. Robin stops him, but Greedo -- I mean, Scarapelli -- shoots first, wounding Robin and Chase and causing Chase to ventilate Scarapelli reflexively. On the last page, a news anchor asks whether this signals a "new kind of hero." You Make The Call....

At first this feels like a random '80s "rogue cop catches drug dealers who hide behind technicalities" movie, but the Titans' commitment to the law ends up winning out. Chase does save just about every Titan's life with his sniper rifle, and while he is therefore presented somewhat heroically, the issue isn't very rah-rah about his activities. Of perhaps more interest to readers today is the inclusion of the Monitor in his early supervillain-supplier role. (His "job-referral service" line gives a new meaning to "Monster-dot-com"....) One of the mercenaries he supplies to Scarapelli is Cheshire, who may be the most familiar (other than the Titans) character in the whole issue.

The other super-mercenaries are pretty forgettable, even comical. There's Scorcher, the fire-fetishist and Slasher, the fanfic writer. Tanker looks like the Crushinator. Spear is a Mr. T wannabe, so he gets called racial insults (really) by Bazooka, a bubblegum-chewing bigot with yet another obvious weapon of choice. Bazooka is really named Joseph, so that should give you an idea of the issue's weird balance between grim 'n' gritty and goofy humor. By the way, Chase kills Slasher and Scorcher.

I leave you with a page that not only spotlights Slasher just before her untimely demise, it begins with one of the more ... intriguing panels George Perez may ever have drawn for a mainstream comic:

As you can see, for the most part subplots connect these fairly disparate issues. That will continue for the next few months, before everything comes to a head and Wolfman and Perez finally finish almost four years' worth of building their ideal Titans team.

Next: George Perez takes a break, Thunder & Lightning return, and the (first) definitive origin of Donna Troy!

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