Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Farewell to the(se) Teen Titans pt. 2

Picking up from where we left off…

As an interesting bit of trivia, just as New Teen Titans writer Marv Wolfman was chosen to helm Crisis On Infinite Earths in 1986, 20 years later Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns would get the nod for that classic event’s sequel, Infinite Crisis. Also parallel, both books’ original artists, George Perez and Mike McKone, would leave their Titans books around the kickoff of the corresponding events; however, while Perez would join Wolfman on the original Crisis, McKone headed over to Marvel to work on Fantastic Four (Johns would be assisted on Infinite Crisis by my good friend Phil Jimenez).

It spoke to the importance of the Titans franchise in both 1986 and 2006 that all or part of the creative team was transplanted over to the DC Universe-altering mega story of the day. There’s perhaps something to be said about DC operating at its peak when the Titans are flourishing and whether there’s a reason to that or if it’s just coincidence, but I’ll leave that to others (for now).

The first Teen Titans story of the post-McKone era was something of a full circle deal encompassing the first two years of the book as the “Insiders” crossover with Outsiders guest-illustrated by Matthew Clark came back around to elements of the Graduation Day limited series that launched both books and dealt with the long-gestating subplot of Superboy having Lex Luthor as of half of his DNA imprint that had been key to the series. It was an emotionally wrenching four-parter that I got quite invested in, watching poor Conner go mindless and attack his friends or Shift mercy kill Indigo; I was fully ensconced at Wizard by now and could read these books for free, but chose to buy them, knowing I’d want them for posterity no matter where my career took me.

As Infinite Crisis got underway across the DC line with tie-ins and lead-ins, Teen Titans acquired a new short term artist in the form of a blast from my personal past: Tony Daniel.

When I was younger and X-Force was among my favorite books, I was head over heels for the art of Greg Capullo, but then one month he mysteriously disappeared and was replaced by some dude I’d never heard of named Tony Daniel (as I relayed to Rickey on the train recently, as a young reader with Big Two tunnel vision, “going to Image” equaled “mysteriously disappeared” for me in the 90’s, and I was constantly wondering why so many artists “quit” comics in their prime). Within a few issues, Tony had won me over big time with ferocity of his work and landed a spot in my heart—before mysteriously disappearing a couple of years later, never to be heard from—by me—again.

Having not followed his work on The Tenth during or after my sojourn away from the medium, Tony working on Teen Titans really was a neat and surprising blast of nostalgia to me. I was speaking with Geoff pretty regularly at this point as I was covering Infinite Crisis for Wizard and would always impress upon him how awesome I thought Tony was when I was younger and how excited I was to see what he could do now; in turn, Geoff would send me e-mails with Tony’s beautiful pencil layouts (seriously, I sometimes wish his books came out in grayscale variants so people could see the raw work). Was I somehow responsible for Tony Daniel becoming the regular artist on Teen Titans and his subsequent success at DC? Next time I need a favor from him I’m going with yes.

Geoff landed a double emotional gut punch on me around this period with his handling of Superboy. First he penned the beautiful Teen Titans Annual #1, where Conner and Wonder Girl reminisced on and solidified the romance I’d watched build from awkward flirtations on the pages of Young Justice; it had a sincere ring of young love and again marked that well-handled aging process I commented on last time. It also made it even harder to read Superboy’s heroic sacrifice in Infinite Crisis, a death I’d been warned about months earlier but still had trouble reading. My then-girlfriend-now-wife, whom I had somehow kept it from and who loved Superboy and Wonder Girl, was furious and said she was going to write Geoff an angry e-mail. Teen Titans was the first comic she had ever read—she doesn’t read comics regularly anymore, but she read Geoff’s entire run on Teen Titans, which also got her reading Runaways, Buffy, Fables and a few others for a time—and this was her first brush with comic book death; she didn’t care for it.

As with the entire DCU, Teen Titans experienced a seismic shift following Infinite Crisis and the One Year Later gap. Familiar, friendly faces Superboy and Kid Flash were gone, replaced by the supposedly reformed Ravager and an inventive take on Blue Devil’s forgotten sidekick, Kid Devil. Robin and Wonder Girl remained, but had been hardened by loss and found comfort in one another. The book as a whole felt darker—a change probably spurred on by Daniel’s moodier art in place of McKone’s comparatively bouncy work—and had in many ways gone from the story of friends hanging out and having fun to survivors being there for one another, and there was mileage in that.

I thought Johns’ attempt to clean up the muddled continuity of the Doom Patrol and bring them back into the Titans’ world was very strong. His work with Kid Devil made for compelling reading, particularly the one-off spotlight issue drawn by Peter Snejbjerg, as Eddie Bloomberg was an optimist who belonged in the Titans during better days but made do with the hand he was dealt even as he hid his own personal tragedy. “Titans Around the World” introduced some great new characters, not the least of whom was Miss Martian, aka Megan Morse.

But despite these high points, you could feel an era coming to an end. Geoff was juggling a lot of books coming out of Infinite Crisis, including Green Lantern, a re-launched Justice Society, and Action Comics; something had to give. In the exit interview he did with me for Wizard’s web site, he said he enjoyed the post-Infinite Crisis period of Titans and had a lot of ideas he was sorry he wouldn’t be able to get to, but also admitted that losing Superboy and Kid Flash had been tough and made his decision on which book he had to drop at least a little easier.

As Geoff prepared to exit Teen Titans, I was finishing up my run as DC contact at Wizard. In one of the very last DC articles I did for the magazine, I pitched the idea of introducing the villainous Titans East through a series of sketches Tony would do exclusively accompanied by “dossiers” Geoff could write; with his schedule slammed, I offered to help with the bios, written from Deathstroke’s perspective as he was the group’s founder. I turned my drafts into Geoff and he paid me an extreme compliment saying they sounded “just like Deathstroke” and he made very few modifications; that piece remains one I’m extremely proud of—you can see it in full here—and Geoff’s kind words still resonate.

“Titans East” would provide a nice capper to the Geoff Johns era of Teen Titans, bringing the focus back to the Wilson family once more and providing some closure to the story that had begun back in issue #1. It also wrapped around the time I left Wizard for Marvel, so it felt like a chapter of my life was closing as well (I mean, one was, obviously, but a more Teen Titans-centric chapter).

I continued to buy Titans after I started at Marvel. The book was creatively adrift for a little while as Adam Beechen, Geoff’s co-writer on “Titans East” and planned successor, ended up leaving for other things after only a few issues. Sean McKeever, a writer whose work I wasn’t entirely familiar with—what I’d read, I’d liked—but also a fellow I knew from conventions and got along well with took over for a solid year and a half, with most of his run drawn by Eddy Barrows. Sean had a knack for writing Ravager in particular and did some neat stuff with revisiting the Titans of Tomorrow, bringing back Brother Blood, and adding some interesting new members such as Kid Eternity and Static. In retrospect, a lot of art shifts, roster changes and event crossovers threw some instability into Sean’s run that was a bit of a shame, because I remember his high points fondly and will always wonder what more he could have done with just a touch more traction.

Following Sean’s departure, Teen Titans gained something of a revolving door. Bryan Q. Miller, a name I recognized and appreciated from Smallville, stepped in for a bit, but didn’t stay long enough for my liking. Felicia Henderson took over for a spell and seemed to have some cool ideas, but never quite nailed the voices of the characters for me. It was a strange thing to watch a book like Titans, which had such a solid sense of self and cohesion for the first few years of its existence, bounce around so much between creators and characters. Geoff and Mike McKone came back for a short untold story of their team for issue #50, and with all due respect to the creators who followed them, the “those were the good old days” message couldn’t help but resonate a bit. I could hardly believe when issue #75 came around and I felt like while the past two and a half years had been packed and eventful in my life, they flew by for the Titans.

I own just about all 100 issues of Teen Titans, but there’s a gap of a few issues I kind of regret now that I don’t own in the mid-80’s; I was still reading monthly, but feeling more and more removed from characters I once felt so close to—Superboy and Kid Flash had both made their way back but seemed like strangers—I pulled back to just reading the office copies.

I came back with issue #88 when J.T. Krul and Nicola Scott took over. I had exchanged pleasantries with J.T. back in the day and he left a solid enough impression that I wanted to give him a shot (that’s all it takes sometimes!). Nicola was a different story as I had “met” her via the Comic Bloc message board back when she was still trying to break into the business and pitched a quick “Introducing” bit for Wizard centered around the unique fact that she had been a Wonder Woman model in her native Australia but that also provided a chance to show off her art; Nicola’s undeniable talent and winning personality no doubt got her where she deserved to be drawing comics in the big time not long after the article, but since I’ve already taken credit for Tony Daniel’s career, let’s go ahead and chalk this one up to me as well.

J.T. and Nicola also brought back a pared down and familiar roster consisting of Wonder Girl, Superboy, Kid Flash, Raven, Beast Boy and Ravager. They threw in the novel wrinkle of adding Damien Wayne, the new Robin, as a wild card, which provided some really fun stuff, before completing the reunion by returning Red Robin to the book as well. It truly did feel like a return to form, as the characters I dug sounded like themselves again, the balance of soap opera with action felt right, and the art shined to accompany fun, heartfelt stories.

The icing on the cake was that right there in the credits, my buddy Rickey Purdin’s name now appeared as the assistant editor. It had been wild enough for me to go from simple reader to a dude who knew the writer and artist, but it honestly felt even crazier in the coolest of ways that a friend who had been in my wedding and whom I talked about Teen Titans with in the cafeteria at Wizard and the train into New York City was now playing a role in controlling their destinies.
And I may be biased, but Rickey Purdin writes the best damn non-Steve-Wacker letters pages in the business (Steve gets his own special division).

Of course that brings us pretty much up to speed, as J.T. notched 12 issues of Teen Titans to be proud of, wrapping with the landmark #100, but the sun has now set as we prepare for the dawn of a new DC Universe.

I’m glad I took this look back at Teen Titans and me, as it reminded me of a lot of the good times the book and its creators provided me over the past eight years, as a fan and a professional. I’m glad in my own small ways I got to be a part of the series, even if it was from off to the side and behind the scenes. I’m also glad that at the end of the day, this book and these characters finished up in a place I’ll fondly remember; as we move to the next step, I’m able to picture those final pages and be happy knowing Conner, Bart, Tim, Cassie and the rest ended up miles away from Young Justice and even their early days as Teen Titans, but recognizable and still together.

Speaking of that next step, I’m pretty excited for the new Teen Titans #1 headed my way, certainly a changed attitude from 100 issues ago. Scott Lobdell—another favorite from my formative years—and Brett Booth are taking these characters even further abreast from where they’ve been than Geoff and Mike did the Young Justice gang nearly a decade ago, but as I was shown back then, change might be scary, but it can also be awesome. Superboy isn’t the only one who did some growing up over the last decade.

Geoff, Mike, Tony, Sean, J.T., Nicola, Rickey, et al., thanks for an awesome ride.

Bring on tomorrow.


WD said...

Really good recap piece, Ben. A few points:

1. Not only did Johns make Teen Titans relevant again in 2003, he did it on the backs of all of the woeful reboot attempts that came previously, including Lil' Atom's team , Devin Grayson's "mature" team, the weird Liberty Island Arsenal-led group, etc. It's quite a thing to finally hit the jackpot after so many (recent) snake-eyes...

2. Fair comments (perhaps overly so?) on the decline after Johns and McKone/Daniel left. As someone in editorial, what are your thoughts / strategies on how to keep the energy of a title going once the launch team leaves? While previously titles could hit a creative lull after a team's departure and "hang around" until things picked up again, in this market it seems unlikely. I'm thinking future possibles like Bendis leaving Moon Knight, Fraction leaving Invincible, etc.

Joseph the Dragon said...

WD, number 2 is pretty easy. You need to have a creative team that's as good or better than the one that's leaving. This certainly makes a case for having fewer ongoings and more good limited runs. If DC didn't have a creative team that could manage TT after Johns/Grummett/McKone left, they should've let the property rest for a bit and then brought it back once they had a plan in place. said...

I suppose one and all should browse on it.

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