Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Essentials: New Teen Titans v1 #1-40/Tales of the Teen Titans #41-50

My last Essentials post was about a book I read and enjoyed mostly as a kid, so it was chock full of childish recollection and glee as well as no real interest in whether the work had stood the test of time (I think it has, but that's not important). My praise of that material came from a "Holy crap Cannonball is the coolest!" place of young enthusiasm recalled that you can only get from something you liked when you were little. Conversely, the body of work I'm going to discuss today is one that I didn't read until college, and that I feel really changed the way I look at comics forever.

I don't remember the exact circumstances of how I came to purchase my first back issue of New Teen Titans, a book whose heyday had begun two years before I was born and was starting to wind down before I was even five. I can't even recall what the first issue I read was. I'm fairly certain that I was just rummaging through the long boxes at Sarge's Comics in New London, Connecticut. My second golden age of comic collecting began during college in large part because I found friends who were interested in getting back into the game themselves, but I'm fairly certain none of us would have had that itch to scratch if we hadn't had Sarge's, to this day the biggest and best comic shop I've ever been to, a 10-minute drive away from the hallowed halls of Connecticut College.

But I digress.

When me and my buddies first went down to Sarge's during my freshman year (200-2001), it was to catch up on X-Men comics, but gradually, as I scanned the rest of the walls, I started to pick up whatever random stuff looked appealing. This led me into largely uncharted territory: DC Comics. I had collected a lot of Superman and Justice League when I was younger, plus the odd issue of Green Lantern and Flash, and had the first 25 issues or so of Superboy, but I'd never connected with any of those characters the way I did with the X-Men, so most of it was foreign to me. Still, since I had always found the visuals of Flash appealing, and because at this time the covers of the series were being drawn by the amazing Brian Bolland, I picked up a few issues and loved it. Seeing that the writer was some guy named Geoff Johns, I looked for what else he worked on and ended up getting hooked on JSA.

Wow, this is sure a roundabout way of getting back to New Teen Titans...

Long story short, I already knew a ton about Marvel from when I had collected as a kid, so the idea that there was this whole other universe out there for me to discover as an adult excited the crap out of me. So whenever I went down to Sarge's to grab new books, I'd also make it a point to scan the DC back issues and pick up stuff that looked cool or significant in an effort to familiarize myself with the characters and their histories. At some point, I bought an issue of NTT (I'm gonna go ahead and say I think it was #4, where they fought the Justice League, as that seems to be the type of thing that would have gotten my attention) and it blew my mind.

The "random DC back issues" I had been getting on my trips quickly became "every issue of New Teen Titans I could find," and before long, I had a pretty respectable chunk of Marv Wolfman and George Perez' first run on the title. I still remember very clearly nearly four years later when visiting my friend Val in Amherst, Massachusetts, she took me to a comic store near her (entirely for my benefit, not hers) and I triumphantly discovered Tales of the Teen Titans #41, the final issue I needed to complete a collection that had been culled from Connecticut, England, and all points in between.

Because I was reading NTT at age 19 as opposed to at age 9, as much as I loved the big fights and gorgeous splash pages, I also really came to appreciate the mechanics being applied, particularly when it came to the writing. The thing I'll always cite as my favorite part of NTT is that over the course of those first 50 issues, it literally covers just about every genre that comic books have to offer (ok, I guess it didn't have a war story or a western) and succeeds at each. This grew out of the fact that when Wolfman and Perez were building the team, not only did they take the risk of mixing in three completely new characters, they took the opportunity to differentiate those characters in such a way that they had incredibly fertile starting points for a wealth of stories.

For my money, there may be no cooler pound-for-pound roster than the team that kicks off New Teen Titans. First off, you've got your three mainstays from the old group, but even with them Wolfman and Perez wash away the cookie cutter DC Silver Age sameness that permeated the team books of the 60's and give each their own role: you've got your straight super hero in Kid Flash, your detective in Robin, and then your mythological link with Wonder Girl. From there they added Changeling for both comic relief and the more bizarre Doom Patrol element, and created Cyborg as the street level guy, Starfire as the alien princess who could rocket the series into sci fi territory, and Raven as the mystical glue holding it all together.

So if you take a look at that roster, you've got seven distinct genres right there: straight super hero, detective/crime noir, epic myth, oddball adventure, "real world" stories, space-based sci fi and magic/mysticism. On the surface, it's brilliance because like I said, you've got all these jumping off points; but at the same time, the creators are faced with the challenge of meshing seven incredibly different young people into a unit you wanted to read about. This isn't the case of mixing three super heroes with a robot and a witch or balancing the dynamic of the Fantastic Four; these are seven characters none of whom have anything in common to the untrained eye and writing a monthly comic with them.

Wolfman and Perez (and I list both of them even though Marv was the writer because if you talk to either, and I've had the pleasure of talking to both, they'll say they were both steering the ship) accomplished the goal of making these Titans work by portraying their bonding process as realistically as you could with a team that counts an orange-skinned alien bombshell, a half-robot black kid with a chip on his shoulder and a half demon mystic babe among their numbers. They did not bond instantly, but instead stuck together mostly because they had nowhere else to go, and then became close because events made them that way organically. As in all the great super hero team books, there was always animosity and arguing amongst the Titans, but they overcame it. I would say that Legion of Super-Heroes was probably the first DC book to really feature a team that bickered (it certainly wasn't Justice League of America or anything else from the Silver Age), but with the Titans, ultimately, they became friends, and having experienced their growth with them, you felt like a part of it.

(As an aside, I think one of the reasons the last few Titans books that have attempted to reunite the original team have been somewhat lackluster is because you can't recreate that slow, natural bonding process; it has already happened and now that they're all friends from the start, there's a warm nostalgia to seeing them together, but not that sense of excitement from the old days).

With their cast in place, one of the other things Wolfman and Perez did so well with NTT was making the stories both closely tied to the team while at the same time epic and beyond their scope. The very first arc is about the Titans' war with Trigon, a demon lord so powerful he can easily defeat the Justice League with a snap of his finger, making the stakes incredibly high, but he's also Raven's father, so there's a very personal stake involved. A battle royal with the gods of Olympus is also a battle to save Wonder Girl's people. An interstellar war between alien races is also about Starfire trying to go home again.

They were also great at bouncing around not only from genre to genre, but from large scale to smaller scale, and making every story seem equally important. The "Runaways" two-parter about Cyborg leading the team to save a group of street kids feels no less dire than trying to rescue Robin from the brainwashing of Brother Blood and ostensibly stopping the coming of the Anti-Christ (more or less). There was no niche for NTT, because Wolfman and Perez did everything, and they did it all well.

And then of course there were the bad guys. Deathstroke (who after his first appearance was never really called "Deathstroke" for the remainder of the Wolfman/Perez tenure, simply "The Terminator") is the best remembered for many reasons. He had (and has) a great costume design courtesy of Perez. He had that twisted but resolute code of honor the best villains have. And what I think made the Terminator really unique was his motivation: he never really wanted to kill the Titans, but his son took on a contract to do so (against his advice) and died in the process, meaning he was honor bound to finish the job. That sense that this was all just a job to Deathstroke, and that it was one he'd honestly prefer not to do but that he was so good at made him a great foil. The fact that he routinely kicked the Titans' asses also made you love to hate him.

But beyond Deathstroke was a wealth of awesome baddies. The foppish Dr. Light and the ever-bickering Fearsome Five, with their constant battle over leadership trumping any success, was always a trainwreck you loved to watch. Trigon was one scary bastard and was smartly used sparingly. Brother Blood was equally creepy, in large part because he perverted something you wanted to take comfort in (religion/faith); he also had a terrific Perez costume and benefitted greatly fro the horror chops Wolfman had honed on Tomb of Dracula. And of course the Titans had their riffs on the classics, with the Gordanians being their token scary aliens and H.I.V.E. working as the perfunctory faceless organization of spooks. Even one-offs like the Disruptor or Trident were fleshed out with panache.

And then there was Terra.

NTT was a bold series in many ways. It explored sex in a mature and intelligent way with the relationship between Robin and Starfire (that Starfire was from a race of people where sex was no big deal and Robin was just a kid with this super hot girlfriend who he had to physically restrain from jumping his bones was certainly a different kind of relationship). It addressed issues of race and class with Cyborg's background and his attempts at an interracial relationship with Sarah Simms. But perhaps none of that heavy stuff was as gutsy as what Wolfman and Perez did with Terra.

During the early 80's, the top two selling series in comics were NTT and Uncanny X-Men. Over in Uncanny, Chris Claremont had created a character who served as both the POV entrance point for many young readers and the first crush for teenage boys (who would grow up to become Marvel Comics editors) everywhere in cute, perky teenager Kitty Pryde. When Wolfman and Perez brought the equally perky, equally cute Terra into the Titans as they rounded the corner on their second year, most fans assumed they simply wanted a Kitty Pryde of their own.

How wrong they were.

Not only did Terra turn out to be a bad guy and a traitor, she turned out to be a completely insane sociopath. It would be months before readers learned her true nature and then after that many more issues during which they'd have to endure watching the team trust the wolf in their midst, screaming fruitlessly at Changeling not to fall for her (she's having sex with Deathstroke!) or for somebody to figure it out (where are those detective skills now, Robin?) to no avail. When the betrayal finally came during the seminal "Judas Contract" saga that served as perhaps the last great hurrah for the Wolfman/Perez glory days, it cut deep. They could have alienated so many fans, but they took the risk, knowing they had a great story and trusting their readers to see that, and the gamble paid off.

Now I write all this putting myself in the shoes of a reader who was actually surprised by the Terra stuff, but truthfully, it's not that hard. Going into reading "Judas Contract" and the stuff leading up to it 20 years after it was written, I knew full well where Terra's story ended, but the work was of such high quality that it still wrenched my heart every step of the way. Terra's death in the "Judas Contract" finale, where she completely loses it and lashes out at these people who have only ever tried to be good to her only to bury herself under an avalanche of her own rage, is one of the most haunting scenes I have ever read.

The story of Terra is probably as good as I can think of to some up why those first 50 magical issues of NTT were so amazing. It was a risky story that worked because you cared about everybody involved. That was the standard operating procedure for the Wolfman/Perez Titans. Every story was gold.

I've babbled enough at this point about what I think is simply of the best comics of all time (and one that I will argue stands the test of time), but I think later in the week I'll bust out some of my favorite arcs from the Wolfman/Perez run to hopefully further illustrate my point to the two or three of you who made it this far in the post. In the mean time, might I recommend you visit the absolutely awesome Titans Tower web site, maintained by the brilliant Bill Walko, where you can learn just about everything about every iteration of the Titans as well as read great interviews with the creators who have worked on them, check out incredible original art and much much more.

1 comment:

Chris Ayers said...

I remember picking up the first issue of NTT off the rack at the local convenience store and how on long car trips, I would take the first 12 issues along with the first year or so of "Micronauts" and just read and re-read constantly.

I got out of comics before the whole "Judas Contract", but fondly recall Wolfman & Perez introducing me to a whole new crop of characters.