Sunday, November 16, 2008

Essentials Extra: New Teen Titans Must Reads

A week ago, in the last installment of The Essentials, I talked up the superlative first 50 issues of the initial volume of New Teen Titans (Tales of the Teen Titans from issue #41 on) by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. In my humble opinion, that chunk of 50 issues (plus three Annuals, the original Tales of the Teen Titans mini, and a couple one-shots here and there) reads best as one complete thread. There may be a dull issue here or there, but there's so much good in between, and so many subplots running beneath the main stuff, that you won't feel cheated if you go for the full monty. However, there are parts of those magical 50+ issues that stand apart for my money, so as promised, here are the stories that make up my definitive New Teen Titans dream collection...

"Today...the Terminator" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #2)
While we meet the Titans in the first issue, it's not until the second issue that the larger super-story that will drive Wolfman and Perez' run really kicks into gear. It's in this issue that we first meet Deathstroke the Terminator, are introduced to the H.I.V.E., and the wheels are set in motion for both to be ongoing threats to the Titans. The first Ravager also makes his debut in this issue, and while the character himself doesn't have a particularly long-lasting role to play, his story is what motivates the Terminator's ultimate plan against the Titans and his legacy remains active in the DC Universe to this day. We also dive straight into the Titans' personal connections with one another in this issue, as they bond away from fighting aliens and demons with both relationships and animosities beginning to show.

"A Day in the Lives" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #8)
One of my very favorite single issue stories of all time, this is the story that really began to set NTT apart from other team books for me and probably, in my mind, blazed a trail for many titles that followed it on into the present. Following their fights against Trigon and the Fearsome Five, the Titans take a day off and go their separate ways, with us readers getting to follow each. Some of the side stories are more interesting than others (I found Raven's a bit dull and while I appreciate them taking a shot at making Kid Flash unique by showing his relationship with his folks, you could always tell he wasn't really wanted in the book by the creative team), but every character becomes at least a little bit more real to the reader (even Robin, who is there for about two pages before speeding off on his motorcycle back to the Batman books). Starfire's naivete is really endearing for the first time here in her bit with Donna Troy (which also introduces Donna's weirdo middle-aged love interest Terry Long...the less said about him the better...) and we can a nice view of Changeling's world, but Cyborg is really the breakout star here, as he becomes arguably the most interesting character of the book's second year. After Vic Stone gets dumped by his girlfriend, who is unable to deal with his new look, he mopes his way into a park and gets his day brightened by a group of handicapped kids who think a super hero whose power is essentially a bunch of artificial limbs is the coolest; it may sound corny, but Wolfman and Perez handle the Vic stuff with such genuine affection that his "civilian" subplots quickly became my favorite.

"Clash of the Titans" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #11-12)
NTT ends its first year with a two-parter that brings the three female Titans (Wonder Girl, Starfire and Raven) to Paradise Island where they get caught up in a literal war of gods. Wolfman has often talked about how the the three girls on the team were set up as a trinity, with WG as the moderate between Starfire's boundless displays of emotion and Raven's lack thereof (Robin was there to strike the same balance between Changeling and Cyborg on the boys' side, another reason Kid Flash always felt tacked on), and he plays with the relationship masterfully here. Wonder Girl is entranced by the Titan of Myth, Hyperion, into falling in love with him, but you can never quite tell how much is a spell and how much is real. Starfire and Raven's opposite reactions, with Kory being confused but hopeful while Rave is distrustful, again explores that spectrum that made this a great cast. These are just the little picture details though, as the big action stuff is the Titans of Myth battling the gods of Olympus, with the girls and the Amazons along for the ride, giving Perez the chance to flex his epic storytelling muscles in ways he hadn't gotten to up to that point.

"The Search for the Doom Patrol" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #13-15)
While the girls are doing their thing in the previous story, the boys (minus an injured Changeling) are searching for Changeling's father, former Doom Patrol member Mento, and end up finding his teammate Robotman instead. When all seven Titans reunite, alongside Robotman they have to first take on a delusional Mento, and then the DP's killers, Madame Rouge and General Zahl. In the final issue, the new Brotherhood of Evil (a revamped version of the Doom Patrol's archenemies) gets involved as well, establishing them as quintessential Titans baddies and showing off Perez' penchant for awesome costume design (Houngan's original look was da bomb). Not every second of this three-parter is gold, but it's definitely a watershed story for Changeling, with some really emotionally trying moments for the youngest Titan and the first step on his long journey towards adulthood that would just get rougher as the series went on.

"Beware the Wrath of...Brother Blood" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #21-22)
As I mentioned last time, I think what makes Brother Blood a unique and creepy villain (besides another timeless Perez costume design) is the way he exploits what we rely on as comfort in our times of crisis (faith) and perverts it. This very first Brother Blood story remains the best one for me, as Wolfman draws on his horror writing experience to play Blood as that eerily detached cult leader figure and also gives the Titans a personal stake by having Cyborg's old girlfriend as one of his followers and later his victim. You can really feel Vic's justified rage as he goes after the villain and the Titans' frustration at knowing even if they beat the bad guy here, he has already won in a way by gaining the trust of his flock.

Wolfman and Perez take the Titans into outer space and throw everything and the interstellar kitchen sink into the widescreen sci fi blowout they've clearly been itching to do since the first issue. This arc is very much about world-building, particularly for Wolfman, who shines the spotlight on guest stars the Omega Men, whose series he went on to launch, and fleshing out the Vega system, where that series is set (and which has become a timeless DC locale). Starfire's evil sister, Blackfire, also makes her first appearance, and immediately presents herself as a force to be reckoned with (why hasn't Blackfire been used in a Titans book lately, come to think of it? She didn't die in the Rann/Thanagar War, did she?). The highlights here are mostly the big explosions and space battle, drawn with enthusiastic aplomb by Perez, but it's also a nice (excuse the wordplay) star turn for Starfire, who for once gets to be the character most in the know, guiding her friends through a foreign environment, as opposed to being the stranger in a strange land. This story combined with Kory's Tales of the Teen Titans spotlight adds tremendous depth to her inner strength and plays nicely against and in concert with her typical more bubbly persona.

"Runaways" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #26-27)
And in an impressive 180 swing, Wolfman and Perez go from the no limits space opera of the previous story to this very serious, "real world" two-parter about teenage runaways, drug addiction and other very heavy stuff. We get the unusual and interesting pairing of Cyborg and Raven as the leads, with Vic exposing Rave to horrors very different from the demonic ones she's used to on the streets of New York City and the two bonding as a result. This story also brings Roy Harper, the former Speedy, back into the Titans' lives, in a relevant and suitable role as liaison between the federal and local authorities targeting the drug trade; Roy would show up several more times over the course of NTT as one of the very best guest stars. We also get our first glimpse at "vigilante" D.A. Adrian Chase, who would play a big role in Robin's maturation process before going onto his own solo series, and of course Terra. Much like with the Brother Blood story, the Titans learn tough lessons here about losing even when you "win."

"Who Killed Trident?" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #33)
A very neat one-off murder mystery that has both the neat hitch of the team's resident detective, Robin, being M.I.A., so the other Titans need to solve the case themselves, and a very inventine resolution that I won't spoil. We also get Terra fully integrated into the team and bonding with her teammates an issue before she breaks our hearts, and a funny scene where Starfire meets Jason Todd.

"Who is Donna Troy?" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #38)
Another great one-and-done that is unlike most other comics you would have seen at the time and even today. The whole issue is Dick Grayson, out of costume, piecing together the mismatched puzzle pieces of Donna Troy's past, as a wedding present to her and Terry. Wolfman shows tremendous restraint in his pacing and the ability to keep you totally tuned into the story without big action or bright costumes, while Perez really starts to experiment with his use of borders, shading, and other bedrock elements of storytelling. It's not only an enthralling story with an emotional payoff, it was also the type of continuity doctoring that Geoff Johns has since become famous for, but which was unheard of in 1984 (of course none of it makes sense anymore after a half dozen more reboots to the character, but details...). Wolfman, Perez and countless Titans fans have all pointed to this issue as a favorite.

"Crossroads" (NEW TEEN TITANS v1 #39)
This issue is probably better known for its oft-imitated iconic cover than what's inside, and it's hardly the most essential issue of the run, but it's an important checkpoint that sets the table for "The Judas Contract" and gives us a chance to observe how far the cast has come, individually and as a unit, over the course of 39+ issues. There's also some interesting meta commentary as Kid Flash muses about never having really felt a part of the team and how they're all much more broken up about Robin's departure than his. The tender moments between KF and Terra are probably Wally's greatest contribution to the series though, as his affection for his young teammate and her faux reciprocation is the final twist of the knife needed before her big betrayal.

The mother of all Titans stories, this is the mega-arc that Wolfman and Perez have been building since issue #2, stirring in extra elements like Terra, Dick Grayson's identity crisis and more along the way. This four-parter crams in more cool stuff than we get in most 7-issue event minis these days, as we learn the Terminator's full origin, meet his family (including pivotal son Joey, aka Jericho), witness Robin's transformation into Nightwing, see the final fate of Terra, and the culmination of everything else we've been waiting four years for. Each chapter stands alone as a unique masterpiece in its own right as well, with the first basically being all prologue and character work, the second providing another showcase for Dick Grayson's detective skills as he figures out how Terra and the Terminator took out the Titans CSI-style, the third giving the spotlight more or less completely to Terminator, and the final part providing the all-out action finale and heartbreaking climax. "Judas Contract" is the all-you-can-eat buffet of comics goodness, providing the most bang for your buck you'll find and doing it well. There is plenty written around the 'net and elsewhere praising this bad boy, but I highly suggest you experience it for yourself (and it's one of the most readily-available trade collections of NTT, so you've got no excuse).

"We Are Gathered Here Today..." (TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS v1 #50)
Marv Wolfman and George Perez put a bow on their initial run as a creative team not with a big fight, but with a wedding, as Donna Troy and (ugh) Terry Long tie the knot in an extra-sized issue that gives Perez an excuse to draw the entire DC Universe in formalware and Wolfman cause to dig up every Titans-related Easter egg he can find, from Duela Dent to naming wedding guests after longtime Titans fans. It's a gorgeous, touching love letter to the characters these creators spent five years bringing together, without a super villain or disaster in sight. "We Are Gathered Here Today..." remains the gold standard for comic book wedding issues and is a wonderfully upbeat sendoff to the first Wolfman/Perez Titans age (until they came back together a few months later to launc a second volume of the book in ghastly dark fashion with the scariest Trigon story ever...but that's another post).

This trip down memory lane is deeply indebted to the awesome, which you should do yourself a favor and check out ASAP.

1 comment:

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