Saturday, September 16, 2006

New Teen Titans #s 39-40 and Tales of the Teen Titans #s 41-44 and Annual #3: "The Judas Contract"

"The Judas Contract" tends to stick in my mind, and maybe in yours too, as a standalone epic. That may not be entirely accurate. It details the mechanics of Terra's betrayal, and throws in a few origins to boot. In that respect it’s a decent thriller with a nice chunk of Titans history. In the longer view, though, "TJC" and the three issues that precede it are about potential.

The plot of those first three issues is pretty simple. In The New Teen Titans #39 (February 1984), behind one of my all-time favorite covers, the Titans raid one of Brother Blood's outposts and learn he's planning to influence Congressional elections. Later, after a couple of scenes between Terra and Deathstroke that define their partnership (to say the least), Terra attends the meeting where her teammates finally reveal their secret identities to her. At that same meeting, Wally West retires from superheroics, and Dick Grayson retires from being Robin.

This doesn't stop the Titans (in The New Teen Titans #40 (March 1984)) from (once again) infiltrating Blood's headquarters and trying to stop his electioneering. However, the plan goes funny and a disguised Dick is mind-controlled by Blood into betraying his friends. In Tales of the Teen Titans #41 (April 1984), the Titans escape, mostly thanks to Terra, but are captured again, and Dick is trotted out again, only this time Blood wants him to throw the kill switch and he resists. By then, though, the president of Zandia has had it with Blood, and the Zandian army attacks Blood's headquarters. Blood once again appears to be martyred, and once again it looks like that's what his plan was all along.

We're not going to spend a lot of time on the Blood stuff, because (a) it covers much of the same ground as the introductory Blood arc, and (b) it has almost nothing to do with the underlying Terra story. I will point out that the first Blood arc saw Robin tortured by "The Confessor," which I thought was named after an old Joe Walsh song, and here Dick disguises himself as ... Joe Walsh. Somewhere there's a Glenn Frey joke struggling to get out....

Regardless, the Blood issues are something of a payoff for the Brotherhood of Evil/Zandia/Bethany Snow threads which had been given various shades of emphasis over the past year or so, and I can see how it fits into the series thus far. Even so, I get the feeling that it is more of Wolfman and Pérez winding up the subplots they'd begun over the book's first two years, clearing the decks for what's to come.

"The Judas Contract" itself has four parts. Part 1 (issue #42, May 1984) is told mostly from Tara's perspective, showing the reader how much she hates the Titans. Part 2 (#43, June 1984) is told in flashback, after Dick survives Deathstroke's attack and reconstructs how the other Titans were captured. Part 3 (#44, July 1984) gets into the origins of the Terminator, as told by his ex-wife Adeline; and also introduces Nightwing and Jericho. Part 4 (Annual #3, 1984) is the big finish, as the two "new" Titans rescue the others, Terra meets her fate, and the rest of Deathstroke's past is revealed.

[A brief note about the change in the book's title: if you don't know the history already, essentially it had to do with the launch of a second New Teen Titans book, and the change was just to avoid confusion. More later, when we get into those stories.]

In hindsight, the Terra storyline doesn’t try to fool the reader too much. Almost from the beginning, the Titans saw the holes in Tara’s backstory, but they never quite put all the pieces together. As shown by the Trident story, the group relied for its deductions pretty heavily on Robin, who was too distracted by his own personal issues to vet Tara in any meaningful way. Dick’s big detective moments in those prefatory arcs came in Annual #2, when he figured out Adrian Chase was still alive, and #38, when he tracked down Donna’s family.

Indeed, in the longer view, "Who Is Donna Troy?" works as a decent capper to thirteen months’ worth of subplots and drama. It’s not only a chance for Dick to relax and throw himself into a personally fulfilling case, it’s also a tantalizing look at what Dick might have uncovered if he’d put as much effort into Tara’s background.

Of course, this plays into the overall theme of "potential." Dick can’t investigate Tara because he’s been pulled in various directions for too long. The development of "Nightwing" thus allows Dick to concentrate more fully on leading the Titans. However, although Dick does put together the pieces of the Titans’ capture, it’s a little troubling that Adeline Wilson has to fill in the crucial factor of Terra’s betrayal. It’s a failure of imagination, perhaps; and perhaps also one that Dick’s harder-edged mentor would not have made. As of the Titans/Outsiders crossover, Batman hadn’t unmasked to his team yet. Still, that’s hindsight too, and probably not as accurate as we’d like to think.

It does illustrate the extent to which the Titans trusted Tara, even in light of her story’s holes. Indeed, as Tara points out, Raven tried to kill Kid Flash and the Brotherhood of Evil at various points in the recent past, and by extension might well have gone after the Titans themselves if Trigon’s nature had manifested itself any further.

Thus, Raven’s potential is pretty grim. Likewise, one of Starfire’s prominent traits has been her desire to cut loose and unleash her warrior spirit. The Titans have had to restrain her natural urges out of necessity, and she must now maximize her effectiveness within those limits. Cyborg tests his potential pretty explicitly in a workout scene in #42, trying to push his metal parts past their stated limits by developing what remains of his own muscles. Changeling’s potential manifests itself in his embryonic romance with Terra. (In fact, she encourages him in #42, saying "[the] only time anyone's better 'n you is when you let 'em be.") Wonder Girl has a similarly bright future with her fiance, but this arc sees her potential more as team leader. Even Deathstroke, the villain of the piece, draws his abilities from maximizing his brainpower.

That leaves the two Titans who depart the team in this arc, Kid Flash and Terra. Both are, arguably, the most powerful Titans -- Wally because, even slowed down, he still has all the powers of a Silver Age Flash; and Terra, because Wolfman and Pérez have given her almost limitless control over not just earth and rocks, but vulcanism too. Those extreme power levels are compared and contrasted, implicitly in Wally’s case and explicitly in Terra’s.

For Wally, his speed is the underlying reason behind his leaving the team -- he’s too powerful to be used effectively. He misses the simple life of being a college student in Blue Valley and hanging out with his girl Frances Kane (who also chooses not to use her own powers), but we know that he can travel between Manhattan and the Midwest in an eyeblink, without breaking a sweat. This says two things about Wally: first, his "I wish I were home" schtick is either short-sighted or disingenuous; and second, if he’s so fast, why isn’t he more effective in a fight?

Both of these issues are handled by Marv and George’s notion that Wally is losing his speed (something that will be explored in much more depth years later, in Wally’s solo series), making his decision to leave the team more of a practical matter than an emotional one. Regardless, the bottom line is that, in dramatic terms, Wally has great potential and is unwilling to explore it (again, see Baron, Messner-Loebs, and Waid on Flash); and in real-world terms, his potential is so great that exploiting it fully would overshadow the rest of the team. Either way, Wally has to go. (I still say he could have come back as Dick’s secret weapon for the big finish, but maybe in the animated movie....)

Terra’s great sin is not really her betrayal of the team, although that plays into it. Instead, it’s her choice to let her hatred control her, and thus to let the beneficial aspects of her powers go to waste. Wolfman writes a pretty fantastic eulogy for Terra on the last page of her life, and we'll get to that shortly. It stays just on the good side of florid and really drives home the point that Terra’s hatred should be met with pity.

One-dimensional though Terra’s motivations might be, she makes a fascinating foil for the Titans because she calls them on their b.s. Up to this point, the Titans had all been wearing deeper grooves in their own particular broken records:

-- "I am sick of Earth and its strange repressions! Also, I am becoming codependent on my boyfriend’s mood swings!"
-- "Strong emotions may aggravate my Trigon side!"
-- "I use mildly offensive humor to cover up my emo!"


Terra is also a (perhaps unintentional) parody of many Titans’ subplots. She has a connection to another DC hero, even if it’s just Geo-Force of the Outsiders. She has a Bad Father figure in Deathstroke. Her past is mysterious, like Donna’s used to be. Like Starfire and Raven, she has to control her antisocial impulses. In short, she’d be perfect for the team, except she can’t stand any of them and counts the minutes until she can unload all her frustrations in one (literal) eruption. Perhaps not surprisingly, she tends to pick the most fights with the most emotional characters (Kory, Raven, Gar), and she works pretty well with the others (Dick, whenever he’s around, Donna, Vic). To the extent she has an actual bond with a teammate (other than her faux-romance with Gar, for which there was surprisingly little buildup, at least in my re-reading), it’s with Wally, the guy who wants to leave. Some more connective dialogue between them would have been nice.

The Terra/Terminator scenes are pretty disturbing at first, with a Lolita-esque, tarted-up Tara implying heavily that he's been sleeping with a girl young enough to be too young for either of his sons. However, the training scene that follows is instructive. Deathstroke has taught her to explore the limits of her abilities, but as Terra starts to get more and more aggressive, thereby revealing ever-greater power levels, he starts to get worried, and our sympathies shift subtly to his side. Although Terra is, overall, the arc's protagonist, we never get inside her head like we do with him, to say nothing of the Titans.

The training scene establishes Terra as almost literally a force of nature, able to tip a balance of power decisively. It foreshadows not only a similar scene in #42 where Terra goes medieval on Changeling, but also her eventual demise. It ends with a telling exchange: Deathstroke suggests that Terra needs to go back to the Titans, and she replies, "Damn them, Terminator. They're sanctimonious do-gooders. I just wanna kill 'em all."

He deflects this with, "Ixnay on the makeup. Cute girl super-heroes aren't caught dead in it." Taking a drag on her cigarette, her eyes hooded by garish makeup, Terra fairly snarls, "Yeah. An' damn all cute girl super-heroes too!"

Deathstroke’s plan is layered with meaning. By bringing in the Titans, he fulfills his son Grant’s contract with the HIVE. You may remember Grant as the (original) Ravager, who was mad enough at the Titans for trashing his apartment and hastening the end of his dating Carol Sladky that he underwent HIVE super-soldier treatment after Deathstroke told them to shove it. Grant died fighting the Titans, as the super-soldier stuff burned out his body, and Deathstroke, blaming himself probably as much as the Titans, took over the contract. Thus, Deathstroke can’t help but be aware he’s sending another super-powered teenager after the Titans -- so why does it feel like Deathstroke, in the end, got played by Terra?

Maybe because Deathstroke gets a big spotlight, with his origin story spread over significant chunks of Parts 3 and 4. Basically, Slade Wilson and Adeline Kane were senior officers in the Army together, she a trainer and he her star pupil. After volunteering for, yes, secret military experiments, Slade's physical abilities improved dramatically, only stabilizing after the Army refused to take him back. Although Adeline thought he had turned to big-game hunting, he had already begun his Terminator career, with his first mission being to rescue his British colleague Wintergreen from the Viet Cong.

His other life caught up with the whole family when their younger son Joseph was kidnapped by "The Jackal" (Carlos?). Deathstroke rescued him, but not before the Jackal cut Joey's throat, severing his vocal cords. Furious, Adeline tried to shoot Slade in the head, but thanks to his superhuman reflexes, he only lost one eye.

More to the point, Slade tells Adeline (just before he loses the eye) that he's chosen his new life because "I haven't been a full person since the Army kicked me out. I needed something. Being the Terminator is it." See, he's maximizing his potential! His executions (his term; he also says they never compromise the national security of the U.S. -- and isn't that a storyline ready to be written today...?) are just the proverbial lemonade!

Additionally, it should be noted that Deathstroke takes out all of the Titans except Dick and Raven, and does it by subterfuge -- Cyborg gets trapped in an electrified chair, Donna and Gar are put to sleep, and Kory is zapped by a device that looks like a present. Deathstroke attacks Dick himself, and Terra defeats Raven one-on-one. This last was apparently a favor to Terra, who'd had it in for Raven I think since around #28. Deathstroke's tactics therefore prevented readers from having visceral reactions to four separate Titan fights, which could each have featured scenes like (in Annual #3) his chopping off Cyborg's hands. Deathstroke delivers the Titans to the HIVE whole, and (except for their captivity) unharmed.

Accordingly, when Terra sees that the captive Jericho is the same curly-haired blond kid from Slade's family pictures, and starts mocking Deathstroke in front of all the HIVErs, naturally the reader might feel a bit more sympathy for the mercenary than for the duplicitous Titan. We certainly haven't gotten into Terra's head as much as Deathstroke's. I don't think Deathstroke knows about Joey's Deadman-like powers, triggered by eye contact, but he can't help but look at his son's face ... and thus, the Titans are freed, by a Terminator again influenced by his son.

Let's return to Terra's potential for a bit, because another facet of it is at the heart of "The Judas Contract." Specifically, Terra' s potential as a Titan drives the story. I said earlier that Marv and George didn't try to put too much over on the reader, with more than a few Titans questioning Terra's background. It may be overly cynical, but the story counts on the reader's hope and faith that, under the accepted rules of heroic fantasy, Terra would have a last-minute epiphany and embrace the side of goodness and truth. Wolfman even says, in his introduction to the 1988 Judas Contract paperback, "I could [make Terra a 'louse'] because comic book convention would demand that readers ignore all the evidence and assume she was a good girl." Reinforcing the readers' (presumed) assumptions were the Titans, whose collective combination of naivete, trust, and distraction allowed them to take Terra into their hearts.

When the Titans are freed, Terra naturally doesn't understand that Jericho's controlling Deathstroke -- she thinks he's turned against her, and this is the last straw. Whatever barriers controlled her powers or her id vanish as Terra falls into madness, lashing out at the Titans and Deathstroke equally, and sounding at various points like a jilted lover and a sociopath. Finally, she disappears under a shower of boulders, accompanied by this narrative:

Her name is Tara Markov and she is little more than sixteen years old. And due to the fault of no one but herself, she is insane.

No one taught her to hate, yet she hates ... without cause, without reason.

No one taught her to destroy, yet she destroys ... with glee, with relish.

Don't look for reasons which do not exist -- plainly, Tara Markov is what she is. And she has taken a great power and made it as corrupt as she.

Hers was the power over the Earth itself. She could have brought life to deserts, heat to the frozen tundra, food to starving millions.

She could have dammed raging rivers and funneled water to lands parched, dry, and dead. Her powers were limited only by the mind which controlled them.

A mind which sought not hope ... not love ... not life ...

... but death.

And she found death. But not her enemies.'

Her own.

I've had my problems with Marv Wolfman's writing, but that's some darn fine comic-book prose. Annual #3 finishes with Tara's funeral, and Joe Wilson's thoughts of "tomorrow's hopes and dreams."

* * *

"The Judas Contract" also allowed Marv and George to remake the team in their own image. In his introduction to the 1988 paperback, P
érez observes that getting rid of Kid Flash and Robin gave them the freedom to do more with these characters. Indeed, Pérez calls Jericho an "artist's character," completely dependent on the artist to convey his thoughts through body language and sign language. (Pérez forbade Wolfman from using thought balloons, although if Jericho inhabited an unconscious body he could talk in its voice.)

As important a story as this was, it suffers somewhat in the art department from a variety of inkers who obscure P
érez's meticulous lines. Pérez inked himself in issue #39 and part of #40. Regular inker Romeo Tanghal inked the rest of #40 and all of #41. Dick Giordano inks #42 and parts of #43, 44, and the Annual, with Mike DeCarlo inking the rest. Giordano and DeCarlo both have fairly distinctive styles that tend to come through regardless of who they're inking, and neither of them overwhelm Pérez's pencils, but the change is noticeable, and for me it's always been a distraction.

Still, as with most of P
érez's "big" work, his layouts and figures carry the day. This page, from #42, reinforces the issue's theme of Tara spying on the Titans through her contact-lens cameras, and goes from Terra's eyes pleading, to a camera POV, to Raven's eyes accusing, to Deathstroke's.

The one complaint I have is with Starfire, who for some reason comes off throughout the arc as pouty (not in a good way) and whiny; for example, her panels in Dick's retirement scene, above. As I said with regard to the Trident story, in the duel of wits between Kory and Terra, I'm more on Terra's side, but the Titans are more on Starfire's. Really, though, she doesn't have much to do in this arc beyond pine after Dick and fly around blasting things. She's almost like a Powerpuff Girl gone horribly wrong ... but maybe I'm overstating my case.

I do like the original Nightwing design, but perhaps it too only looked good when pencilled by P
érez. (Okay, Scott McDaniel in "Nightwing: Year One," and maybe some others.) It's a nice blend of superhero and acrobat, which is appropriate, and it fits in with the Batman aesthetic without being associated too closely with it. I don't know if I like it better than the current version, which at times seems awfully generic, but it put in several useful years.

The Jericho costume ... yeah, I don't know. The muttonchops and curly hair make him look like Terry Long's kid brother. The color scheme isn't garish, but it's not subtle either -- aren't blue, white, and purple associated with Mardi Gras? Joey's powers are pretty cool, though, and the little "Contact!" captions that accompanied them are used to good dramatic effect. As for the name, I suppose a guy who turns immaterial so he can control other people's bodies might like "the walls come tumblin' down," but it seems to take a couple of steps to make that connection.

* * *

This was a pretty difficult essay to write, even after spotting the major themes and the big structural changes to the team, because "The Judas Contract" is a simple story with a lot going on under the surface. I didn't even have space to mention the cute ice-skating scene with Vic, Sarah Simms, and a punchline supplied by Changeling; the ominous portents surrounding Vic's grandparents, or the much scarier animal-skull helmet Brother Blood sports. Also, Gar is captured by licking drugged envelopes (he licks them, they don't lick him -- this isn't Grant Morrison), so if only Susan Ross had read Titans #43, she might be alive today. I'm sure I've forgotten other big aspects of this arc, but sheesh! this post is long enough.

"The Judas Contract" deserves to be remembered as the monumental payoff to some eighteen months' worth of serial superhero comics. It can be enjoyed on its own, but anyone who's "lived through it," so to speak, probably doesn't soon forget the experience.

Next: Payback ... against Bernadette Peters?


Anonymous said...

Great post! I grew up reading the Titans series and this was a fantastic analysis of one of their seminal story arc.

Looking at the post of the first appearance of the Nightwing costume, makes me realize how much the neckline of that costume gravitated south until it was eventually retired.

Also, I think a great way to explain Tara's reappearance in the DC Universe would be to claim that she was an immature Earth Elemental.

She should have been an Elemental like Swamp Thing or Firestorm, for a brief time, and fulfilled the potential discussed in Wolman's eulogy, but she was driven insane when her powers emerged too soon. After her burial, she "gestated" inside the Earth and finally emerged years later with little, to no memory, of the life she had led before.

Tom Bondurant said...

Well, considering we're getting an All-New Terra pretty soon, that may be part of it. However, seems like a lettercolumn from back in the day shot down a theory that since a dead Geo-Force was "buried in the earth" and revived, Terra could do the same. Apparently Terra's powers didn't work that way.

We'll get to Terra 2.0 when she shows up in Team Titans.

More TAZ said...

Great essay. Brought back some great memories of reading that comic. ;)