Saturday, August 19, 2006

Terra Who? and "Who Is Donna Troy?": New Teen Titans #s 35-38 and Batman and the Outsiders #5

In The New Teen Titans #34, Marv Wolfman and George Perez revealed a side to Tara Markov that was sure to shock readers who had been following the plucky young heroine for the past several months. What's more, the Titans were completely clueless about Tara's real motives, having decided already to tell her all their secrets at the first possible opportunity. The team was already beset with internal problems, and this latest development could either mean its end, or an opportunity for a new beginning.

Naturally, Marv and George sat on Terra for a while.

Now, to be fair, Perez probably wanted to be involved in the issues that decided Terra's fate, and his plate was getting pretty full -- the just-completed Titans Annual, probably some SwordQuest tie-in comics for Atari, and a little thing called JLA/Avengers (speaking of delayed gratification). Also, the book had a few more matters to take care of before Terra's other shoe would drop.

These issues don't quite forget about the major development of issue #34, but neither do they expand upon it. Although they're not really "inventory" issues, in the larger scheme of things, you'd think the focus would be a little different.

Keith Pollard pencils New Teen Titans #35 (October 1983), a hostage drama involving Sarah Simms, her psycho ex-fiance Mark Wright, and Cyborg, Changeling, and Raven. (See, Terra's not even in the issue.) Mark used to be a military sniper, so he's pretty successful at holding off the cops, and even manages to shoot Vic in one of the unarmored areas on his shoulder.

The upshot of the story is that Mark doesn't want to lose Sarah like he lost his previous girlfriend. For a while it looks like Mark might have killed her, albeit by accident, but at the end it's revealed that no, she's just "dead to him." While I don't think this backstory would have been a woman-in-refrigerator situation, exactly, it feels like Mark's crazy was toned down at the last minute. Assuming, of course, that it's somehow less crazy for a guy to take someone hostage for fear that he wouldn't, uh, not kill her like he didn't kill his girlfriend before. Yeah, that makes the ending much easier to take.

Anyway, the three Titans save Sarah and console nutty ol' Mark, and Vic finally gets to make up for her being kidnapped in #10. Fun fact: Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard worked together on The Amazing Spider-Man, so guess what Changeling changes into this issue? You guessed it -- Seabiscuit!

New Teen Titans #36 (November 1983) wraps up the plot threads from issue #32's introduction of Thunder & Lightning. Remember, the kids were left with STAR Labs so their powers could be studied and maybe wouldn't end up killing them. Apparently "studying," as interpreted by DC go-to scientist Dr. Jenet Klyburn, means "strap to a table and shoot with high-powered lasers." It's a new field of study, Dr. K muses.

As it happens, the lasers aren't so good at "probing" T&L, and overload their powers, or something. A brief fight ensues, stopping when both sides realize it won't get them anywhere. Raven then offers -- despite the extreme risk of unleashing her Trigon side -- to try and cure the boys in her soul-self. It envelops them, and soon becomes all tentacle-y, lashing out at the Titans. When things calm down, T&L tell the group that the tentacled thing was a manifestation of their father, and he's being held prisoner. They don't know it's by a HIVE branch, which doesn't like holding Dad too much itself.

It won't be their problem much longer, though -- the Titans and T&L start wrecking the place. The HIVErs have gotten some control over Dad, and he unwillingly attacks the teenagers. Did I mention that Dad's really a centuries-old alien who apparently looks otherwise human, except when he's an 8-foot dinosaur-thing with one eye, two big fangs, and a pair of tentacles? Only T&L's powers can stop him, and he pleads with them to kill him. They do, and are suitably horrified, but Robin tries to ease the pain by telling them they "freed" him. Apparently he dies a human, because his touching final metamorphosis happens off-panel.

I therefore get the feeling that, for the second issue in a row (and the second non-Perez issue ... hmmm) the ending was "toned down" to make it less disturbing. Still, T&L clearly had to deal with a Bad Father in the classic New Teen Titans mold, and his final fate makes their story that much more hardcore. Raven came the closest to "killing" her BF, but she only put him in limbo. The issue ends with T&L saying yeah, they'll probably use their powers for good -- but first they'll tell their mother they love her.

Subplot watch: Robin thinks everyone hates him because of his involvement with Adrian Chase, and maybe he doesn't deserve to lead the Titans. Kid Flash is still quitting, and he still hates Raven for trying to kill him. Raven, as mentioned above, is still filled with worry about letting her Trigon flag fly. (Pollard does a good job conveying the group's support of Raven, just by arranging the group around her in close, comforting poses.) As for Terra, there is nary a mention of her real agenda, for the second straight month. Wally and Raven make up this issue, however, in a fairly understated couple of scenes. Before that, though, Wally gets a silent scene with Donna, where she comforts him after he lashes out at Raven.

FYI, according to a lettercolumn, George Perez had to take these issues off after getting very busy with a number of projects, including the original JLA/Avengers. Regular inker Romeo Tanghal finished Pollard's pencils, giving the issues a fairly consistent look. Pollard and Perez had worked together on a few issues of Justice League of America, so their styles were hardly incompatible.

Perez returned in fine fashion for New Teen Titans #37 (December 1983), the first part of a crossover with Batman and the Outsiders #5 (written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Jim Aparo). Even the jokes work, and that's saying something. It's the Fearsome Five vs. the Titans and Outsiders, so #37 promises more main characters than even the Titans/Omega Men or Titans/JLA issues, and Perez, of course, delivers.

The plot is this: Gizmo breaks his Fearsome Five teammates out of prison, although nobody's really happy about having Dr. Light along again. Light just wants to do a big robbery, but Shimmer and Mammoth remember a Dr. Jace from back in Australia who was experimenting with giving ordinary people super-powers. The F5 decide to kidnap Jace and force her to augment their own powers. (I'm not quite sure how much "augmentation" a transmuter like Shimmer or a psionic like Psimon could use, but whatever.) This ends up changing into "Dr. Jace creates an army of lava-men," probably because that was more practical.

Dr. Jace also gave Terra and her brother Brion Markov, a/k/a Geo-Force of the Outsiders, their powers, so when the F5 kidnap her, she sends out a distress call on receivers built into their costumes. After the Traditional Superhero Misunderstanding Fight, the groups team up. (In a sensible touch, parties on both sides who should know each other well enough actually say, "Hey, I know [him/her]....")

However, as you might have guessed by now, the real through-line of the story is the Batman/Robin relationship, and it's handled very well. It begins with a scene at Wayne Manor, where Dick tells Bruce he wants to end their partnership -- not their friendship, Dick is careful to point out, and Dick's not giving up his Robin identity. His experiences with Chase have clarified the differences between him and his mentor. (I'm not sure this is quite fair, because I don't believe Batman -- especially the '80s Batman -- is quite the Punisher-type that Chase's Vigilante is, but Dick might not think that either.)

Once the two teams start tracking the Five, Batman takes charge. Given how Perez draws him, it's hard not to see why. His Batman is all shadows and sharp lines, and he dominates a scene. It's different somehow from the earlier Batman appearance with the JLA in issue #4, perhaps because there Batman was part of the Justice League, and therefore one of a few higher-profile heroes. As among the Titans and Outsiders, though, he's BATMAN!, like, OMG!!!11 It helps prove Marv & George's point, too -- next to Batman, Dick is "just" Robin, and it's hard not to make Robin automatically subordinate. I'm a little surprised some of the more experienced Titans and Outsiders didn't fall into an old habit of assuming Robin would follow his lead. I think Wonder Girl and Kid Flash might even have done this despite their relationships with Dick.

Anyway, this carries through until the big fight in the Empire State Building, when Batman barks out an order that would end up misusing a couple of characters. Robin calls him on it, says he's better at leading a team than Batman is, and takes charge. For his part, Batman respects Robin's authority and lets him do his thing. The Fearsome Five are defeated, and Batman acknowledges Robin's leadership skills. "You lead the Titans well, Robin -- I guess even the teacher can learn from his pupil ... his former pupil!"

"Thanks, Batman!" Robin replies. "But you know what they say ... a pupil is only as good as his teacher ... and I had the best there is!"

Mike Barr wrote those words, in case we need to reconcile them with the more "official" story from Wolfman & Perez. Not long after this, of course, Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty have told us that Dick got "fired" again, this time for good. But that's a while in the future....

Since the plot concerns Terra and Geo-Force, they get a few sweet moments of sibling bonding, although at the very end Terra worries that she doesn't want her brother to "go down with" the Titans when she betrays them. So, in both issues, there are reminders that Terra's a rotten egg ready to crack, just to keep readers up to speed.

The last issue of this particular batch is New Teen Titans #38 (January 1984), "Who Is Donna Troy?" Fittingly enough for us, as #35 focused only on three Titans, this spotlights only Dick and Donna. It still packs an emotional wallop, because despite Dick's narration about his relationship with Batman, at its core it's the story of a woman who finds herself. Because Dick narrates, we see his detective work, and we get a little quasi-purple prose about his own abiding (platonic) love for Donna, but we also see her reactions to each new discovery.

The issue is a paen to the idea of "Donna Troy," a beautiful young woman who started life passed around from family to family, but who was always loved. It's not hard to imagine that someone who's always received that treatment -- and who, in fact, was an Amazon princess, right? -- would start to wonder if there were anything in her past that could bring all that down. There's little of that here, in a story that doesn't put Donna on a pedestal as much as it reassures her.

There's also the tendency to see Donna as Marv Wolfman's idealized woman, through the lens of Terry Long as Marv's somewhat self-effacing stand-in. However, I think that's an unnecessarily contorted view of this story. Its pathos is balanced by the routines not only of Dick's forensics, but also a few scenes of the characters traveling.

Perez and Tanghal do a great job with this issue. Tanghal's inks seem exceptionally tight, such that it almost looks like Perez inked his own work. (He might well have inked the figures, I don't know.) The noirish opening and closing scenes are rendered mostly in shadow, suggesting a downbeat detective story that counterbalances Donna's growing elation. In fact, for his part Dick is pretty even-tempered throughout, smiling only at the end when he reflects on his work.

So, who is Donna really? Well, it starts with a battered old doll that Dick discovers in an old coal bin in the soon-to-be-demolished apartment building where Wonder Woman found Donna. (Donna last visited in issue #1.) Scraps of the doll's dress reveal writing that, according to Dick's computer, might have said "HELLO MY NAME IS DONNA."

That leads to a toymaker in Newport News, Virginia (right down the road! w00t!) who remembers the doll. (It has orange skin and curly auburn hair, and looks disturbingly Tamaranean.) He fixed up all the dolls for the kids at the orphanage, so from there Dick finds the orphanage's former owner, in a Florida nursing home. Dick and Donna visit, Ms. Cassidy remembers the doll, and tells Donna about her real mother, Dorothy Hinckley. Ms. Cassidy also remembers that the Staceys adopted Donna.

It's not too long before Donna's hugging her adoptive mother fiercely, in the front yard of Fay Evans (nee Stacey)'s Newport News home. I really like this page and how it flows into the next one, because Perez and Tanghal absolutely nail Donna's quick trip from peppy nostalgia to complete emotional collapse:

So who was in the fire that gutted the old apartment building? Fay's husband Carl Stacey died in an accident, and Fay basically got pressured by a crooked lawyer (not a redundancy) into selling Donna as a black-market baby. Robin tracks down the lawyer in prison, uses a little of the Bat-mojo on him, and gets out of him that a furnace exploded before the deal for Donna could go down. That's about the only scandal in Donna's past, at least according to this story. "WIDT?" also skirts the question of Donna's paternity, saying it's not important. Rather than this being a plot hole left open for later exploitation, though, I tend to think that Marv & George knew they had a good enough issue without it, and chose to address it thusly rather than gum up the works with it.

Again, I'm sure there are a couple of different ways to mock "Who Is Donna Troy," or to look at it as the biggest step in the idealization of a character conceived as an impossible fantasy (Wonder Woman's imaginary childhood) and given life by mistake (the first Titans editor didn't realize she didn't exist). There's a strong undercurrent of irony and metacommentary running beneath this story, and it's entirely possible that Donna herself, with all the goodwill she's generated from fans, is nothing more than the coalescence of that goodwill -- optimism given form, as it were. However, even with all of that, my experience with the story is that it does humanize Donna. Its emphasis is on a series of Oprah-worthy tearjerkers, but darn if they're not skillfully paced and masterfully depicted. When Dick returns the Donna doll, fully repaired, to her owner, I found myself getting a little misty-eyed. Call me a sucker, but I bought into this story almost unexpectedly.

What about next month, though? Could The New Teen Titans get any better?

Three words: "The Judas Contract."


Anonymous said...

Ah, this covers a couple of my favorite New Teen Titans stories: I loved the Outsiders crossover because it clearly used the Batman/Robin relationship so perfectly. It still galls me that most of this has been somewhat retconned.

And I think it also shows why a solo Nightwing book tends to not work: the Robin of the Titans was a team player, a leader. Like the Martian Manhunter, he doesn't work as well in a solo book (that's not to say that Nightwing isn't totally misused in the current Outsiders, though).

It bothers me, too, that even after the acknowledgement that Robin is better at the team thing, the current writers just have Dick follow Batman's career: solo vigilante in a crime-ridden city, leader of a version of the JLA after Batman disappears, leader of the Outsiders, just like Batman. Bleah.

Anyhow, thanks for the trip down memory lane once more!

Tom Bondurant said...

You're welcome -- but what was the other favorite story?

I agree that "the Robin of the Titans," as you put it, was a team player. That's the weird irony of Dick Grayson's character, starting with his NTT career. He basically trades one association (Dynamic Duo) for another (Nightwing, leader of the Titans). However, the whole time he's making this transition he's striving to be his own man.

Maybe that's the rationale behind post-Titans writers giving him Batman's career arcs, but isn't that just another form of association?