Monday, August 29, 2011

Farewell to the(se) Teen Titans pt. 1

With the DC Universe we’ve known and loved for the past 25/5/2 years (depending on when you consider the current start point; I left out Zero Hour as an option, though I probably shouldn’t have) coming to an end before beginning anew this week, I wanted to do some sort of big post celebrating, highlighting or analyzing said world of comics. A daunting task to be sure, but despite the fact I work “across the street,” we’re talking about stories, characters, creators, etc. that played a major part in my comic book life and that have meant a lot to me.

I’m probably repeating myself here, but while I was a Marvel kid and am employed by Marvel now, DC was a major part of what got me back into comics in college following a multi-year lapse and ultimately led me down the path that made me a—snicker—industry professional. While discovering Sarge’s Comics and wanting to check up on what I’d missed with the X-Men was the lure that caught my attention, a sprawling universe containing so many tales and so much continuity I’d never explored in much depth was the bait that reeled me in.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was my starting point, rather than an end goal, so I could work my way back and figure out who all these people saving the multiverse were and where they’d gotten to since 1986. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans was a natural next step as they were the Crisis creators and the complete run was there in the back issue bins for me to find. At the same time, I caught up on what I’d missed in the late 90’s with stuff like Kingdom Come and Grant Morrison’s JLA while also familiarizing myself with then-current DC fare, most prominently the work of Geoff Johns on Flash and JSA.

Wow, this could easily just turn into yet another “Ben’s comics autobiography” post if I let it. But I won’t. Well, I’ll try.

Anyway, while Marvel has provided the bookends of my fandom to date, DC played a major role filling the gaps. I was known as “the DC guy” for most of my tenure at Wizard including a year or so run as their official contact and am a dude who still picks up quite a few of their books with my own hard-earned money and reads most of the others from the comps around the Marvel offices to this day.

But what to write about in this epic farewell to the current DCU? Something about the Justice League since their newest incarnation debuts this week? A treatise on Crisis On Infinite Earths, since it’s kinda my DC bible? An underrated stories list? A lazy top five?

All considered, all rejected.

I was reading Teen Titans #100 over the weekend and realized I vividly recall the first issue of the series and most of the 98 in between. I can’t really think of any other current book I can say that about, at least not one that’s lasted that long. So I figured remembering this last volume of Teen Titans, which in many ways was my DC touchstone from college to Wizard and even to Marvel, was the way to go.

First things first: When a new Teen Titans ongoing series was announced back in 2003, I was not happy about it. Seriously. I even wrote an article about why I didn’t like the idea for my old web site, 411mania.

Seems strange, doesn’t it? I’ve already covered that I was a fan of the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans as well as Geoff Johns, who would be writing the new series. I was also big into the Exiles art of Mike McKone, who would be drawing the book, and one of my favorite characters, Superboy, would be a charter member. So why the glass half empty outlook? It had to do mostly with Young Justice.

Since my “return” to comics, Young Justice by Peter David and Todd Nauck had become one of the consistent favorites to top my reading list. It was funny, it was a clever, and it was different; a monthly super hero comic with plenty of action, jokes and shiny art, but also a knack for incorporating heavier themes involving real teenage problems and building relationships that felt genuine. I loved Young Justice and miss it to this day. Unfortunately, while it had a passionate following, we weren’t enormous, and unfortunately it was just a matter of time before the book got cancelled. I should have been overjoyed that even if one of my most beloved comics was going away, at least most of its cast was sticking together in a new title by my favorite writer, but for whatever reason I took a more “You killed Young Justice!” approach to Teen Titans’ initial publicity.

Fortunately, my stance didn’t hold for long. Yeah, initially I was a bit of a fanboy, grumbling to myself about Impulse now wanting to be called Kid Flash or Superboy acting less like the eternally immature Peter Pan I grew up with, but Geoff did strong work and they did it from the start, so it was hard to not get caught up. As time passed, I bought more and more into the notion that these characters were actually growing up, just as I had; Young Justice was the carefree middle school years of those characters—and me—that still existed in memories and always would, but Teen Titans was the terrifying and exhilarating step that came next.

It also helped that Mike McKone’s art was really good. In a lot of ways he was the modern day George Perez to a new generation of Titans as far as enthusiasm for detail and skill in conveying youth, but he also set himself apart with a smooth style incorporating an eye for the future that set him apart from his decades-earlier predecessor’s classic and studied approach.

Johns also brought his talent for reinvigorating classic villains as well as creating new takes on familiar bad guys honed on Flash over to Titans. Deathstroke shook off his murky anti-hero period and got back to being a thinking man’s bad ass with a warped—but potent—code of honor. The Wilson children, Jericho and Ravager, both got fleshed out and twisted (in my exit interview with Geoff for Wizard when he left the book, I noted how his run was in many ways as much the story of the Wilson family as of the Titans, a fact he registered with a “Huh”). The new Brother Blood was even creepier than the old one (and still gives my wife the willies if I mention him). The fallout of Doctor Light going from joke to psycho with an earned chip on his shoulder was also well-played.

There was also a clear rising action to those early arcs of Teen Titans especially. “A Kid’s Game” was a strong opening that forged the team immediately against an A-level threat in Deathstroke and gave a nod to the title’s past, but it was still our heroes versus a relatively conventional bad guy, which gave room to grow. After two fun one-offs with a JLA versus story and ode to the classic “Day in the Life” issue of NTT, “Raven Rising” upped the stakes with a more serious threat in the new Brother Blood and reached deeper into the past by incorporating Trigon while also building further for the future with Ravager’s ongoing involvement. “Beast Boys and Girls” was another diversion arc with a focus on Beast Boy—which made sense given that Johns had written a solo series for him way back when—another new villain in The Zookeeper and a neat throwback with former Titans—and Superboy—artist as well as a personal favorite, Tom Grummett, on hand to illustrate.

By this time, I had become friends with Geoff and met him at my first San Diego Comic-Con as he was helping me try to break in. My buddy Tim and I went out for a midday drink with him and he showed us on his laptop what was coming up in Titans, so I got my first taste both of being an “insider” and not being able to share awesome secrets.

“Titans Tomorrow” was awesome. In reality, it was “only” a three-part story contained to a single title, but it felt so much bigger in scale. I’ve always loved peeking at future versions of elements I know as much as the next guy, but here Johns devoted as much time to genuine character building in the way of values and destiny as he did to fan service stuff like revisiting the Bart Allen-Rose Wilson romance or incorporating Cyborg’s animated series look—although I suppose that latter credit should be given more to McKone, who outdid himself in redesigning the future Titans and their world.

It would be the next arc, “Lights Out,” where Mike would really get the chance to shine—which was fitting as it would be his swan song before heading back to Marvel to draw Fantastic Four. The story spun out of Identity Crisis, bringing Doctor Light out of that event and back into the Titans orbit, and also brought the new Speedy into the team as well as introducing a new Hawk and Dove. The true draw, however, was McKone getting to draw pretty much every Titan ever when they get called in as backup, an old Perez staple that he had earned and that he attacked with an explosive excitement, truly his finest hour on a tour of duty filled with many high marks.

Teen Titans would be a good and even great book other times past issue #23, but there was certainly a magic and energy in those initial Johns/McKone issues that, as with any truly special creative team, would be impossible to duplicate.

And that seems a good place to stop for today, as 100 issues certainly warrants more than one post (particularly when I—predictably—rambled about myself for the first five paragraphs).


Steambot Jebus said...

Nobody puts Impulse in the corner!

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