Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Problem with the New Teen Titans

It’s no secret to anybody who has read this blog semi-regularly or spoken to me about comics more than once that Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans is not only high among my personal favorites, but in my opinion a shining example of the super hero medium at its finest; I’ve gone on about why at length.

However, as great as the NTT glory years of Wolfman and Perez (and later Wolfman with others) were, they’ve also plagued the characters who starred in those stories ever since.

The prime seven of New Teen Titans—like many I always think of Kid Flash as being more of a core member than Jericho though I believe the latter had tenure—occupied a unique spot in the hierarchy of the DC Universe back in the 1980’s in that they were able to age from their traditional role as kids into older teenagers and still have a place; the Justice League were obviously the adults, but the closest thing to a truth youth movement was going on in the 30th century with the Legion of Super-Heroes, so the Titans had their niche.

In the decades since, a new generation of true Teen Titans has come along while the JLA has remained stationary as far as aging, wedging the NTT into an awkward spot. Folks get their fix of grown-up heroes with Superman, Batman and company; if they want a younger take, they’ll check out Teen Titans; you’ve even got the buffet option of the JSA where the generations match up. The former New Teen Titans have in large part become the super hero equivalent of the townies that graduate high school and then rather than go to college or move on, just hang around their old haunts trying to relive their glory days but often just coming off desperate; they’ve become Matthew McConnaghy in Dazed and Confused or Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, but unfortunately not always as cool.

The go-to solution to “the Titans problem” tends to be just tossing them in a group together and give them a book, but more than once this strategy has just reinforced how tough it is to recapture lightning in a bottle, particularly when you want your characters to grow and mature. It’s not a conundrum limited to the Titans either, as this went on for years with the New Mutants as well; fortunately Zeb Wells finally found a take that made the New Mutants work again—and I look forward to Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning running with that baton—but it took a lot of swings and misses before the bat connected there.

For better or worse, I think the Titans have outgrown one another, at least as far as being grouped together on a monthly basis. When they have reunions, it should be an event, something truly special, but that means keeping the characters relevant and growing on their own in between. Besides: Wolfman, Perez and their successors—as well as predecessors in many cases—created some remarkable figures that really should be seeded across the DC Universe.

Here’s where I personally would put the New Teen Titans in the interest of them living up to their tremendous potential rather than festering in limbo or going through the retread motions.

The current Batman of Gotham City is exactly where he needs to be right now both as the star of several Bat-books and, more importantly in my eyes, leading the Justice League of America. One of my favorite aspects of Dick Grayson has always been that though he’s Bruce Wayne’s protégé, he also learned a lot from and modeled himself in part after Superman, and in the process really became the best of both. While the prime Batman is too anti-social and intimidating to be a leader but uses his genius-level strategic mind to direct things from behind the curtain and Superman does better as an icon since he can inspire but not really plan, Dick amalgamates those two skill sets and is the best pure leader in the DC Universe, a point that was made for years in NTT and then reinforced everywhere from The Obsidian Age to Infinite Crisis; he’s DC’s Captain America, able to direct his team both on and off the field. One of the best characters in comics, Dick Grayson has never really been hit by any sort of “New Teen Titans curse” and is right where he belongs at the forefront of the heroic community.

On the other hand, I appreciate James Robinson’s efforts with Donna Troy in Justice League of America—a book I feel compelled to note I quite enjoy, by the by—but something’s just not working for me. Obviously when you look up “damaged goods” in the imaginary encyclopedia of comics books I just created in my mind, there’s a picture of Donna staring back at you; the character has had her origin broken and glued back together so many times by sweeping continuity changes that along the way her sense of identity shattered and each subsequent fix seems to do more harm than good, regardless of the creators involved having best intentions. While she’s not a bad sub for the Wonder Woman spot in JLA, something about “den mother Donna” from New Teen Titans seeming so angry all the time doesn’t jive; certainly if any fictional character has earned the right to have a chip on her shoulder, it’s Donna Troy, but she also became so beloved lo those many years ago because she was the levelheaded Amazon who would put people in their place with kindness before resorting to throwing fists. You risk aging her by doing so, but it always seemed a natural fit to me that Donna would reside in the permanent mentor/bridge to their past role for the current Teen Titans that Cyborg and Starfire have filled in recent years to limited success. I’d enjoy seeing Donna in the big sister position not to just Wonder Girl, but the rest of the next gen heroes as well, and it would certainly give her a unique spot to fill in the DC Universe as a veteran taking an interest in the future who the kids could actually still relate to—and crush on—in contrast to the octogenarians of the JSA. Or maybe she should just stay in the JLA doing what she’s doing; Donna Troy is always going to be a tough knot to untangle.

I’m not going to get into a rant here, but Wally West belongs as The Flash in the Justice League of America. The beauty of having so many guys calling themselves The Flash should be that you can disperse them around where needed and everybody who needs a speedster gets one, plus every speedster gets some love. Barry Allen has the solo book, and besides, a big plot point for him thus far seems to be that he’s having a bit of a hard time readjusting to being around his old friends, so the JLA is no place for him. Wally, on the other hand, is one of DC’s most tenured and talented team players and was a fixture of the League for years; he’s not doing anything else and no starring roles seem in the offing, so put him where he belongs on the premiere team that happens to be led by his best friend. Obviously I’d personally be fine with jettisoning Jesse Quick to accommodate this—no offense to Ms. Quick—but if you wanted you could have both on the team like back during Devin Grayson’s Titans run, where it seemed to work fine.

I don’t dislike Raven’s current role as a revitalized—i.e. young again—member of the Teen Titans, but I could also see her doing more in the DC Universe at large, and with the character supposedly getting a CW show in the near-ish future, that seems like a good idea for all concerned. Given the substantial amount of younger mystic heroines already kicking around—Traci 13, Black Alice, etc.—Raven could be nudged back up into her late teens as she was when NTT wrapped and perhaps establish herself as the next level up from those ladies but still a bit beneath Zatanna or Doctor Fate. In the same way that Doctor Strange is the go-to guy whenever any Marvel hero needs magic help, Raven could be the DCU’s guide to the mystic realms and become a valuable guest star that stars in the occasional miniseries when somebody has a good idea. This may seem redundant given the folks I already mentioned, but with her demonic heritage, Raven is a more sensible shepherd than stage magician Zatanna or the still-novice new Fate when it comes to exploration into other dimensions or whatnot; she could be akin to Daimon Hellstrom in some senses, but she’s got a far richer background and more years of good stories to her name. In short, I think a break from the Titans would benefit Raven and give her a chance to grow into a vital part of the heroic structure of the DCU rather than just serving as a plot device to spawn new Trigon-related threats for her old teammates.

In recent years, Cyborg has become one of the science experts who get called in when Red Tornado gets broken or Arsenal needs a new arm, which has never rung true with me as it seems totally out of line with the core of the character. Vic being a smart guy should certainly be an aspect of his persona, but not the dominant trait; he shouldn’t just be played as Mr. Terrific with cool robot parts. I’m not suggesting Cyborg should be in angry young man mode indefinitely and certainly he no longer has the giant chip on his shoulder he had back when NTT kicked off, but even as recently as the Grayson Titans, he still had a healthy bit of attitude and street smarts to go with his burgeoning brain. I’m glad that the character has grown, but it feels sometimes like they went from point A to point Z skipping all the steps in between. I’d love to see Vic as a strong-willed team leader, rather than just the muscle, tech support or even mentor for a group. With the Outsiders name going into limbo again shortly, it would be neat to see some of DC’s true outsider characters, the ones who have been screwed over by normal society, band together—which is honestly how I’ve always wanted to see that name used—with Cyborg at the helm as a guy who found friends, family and acceptance, but also knows what it’s like to be desperately seeking.

Of all the New Teen Titans characters, Starfire is the one who was among the richest back in the day, but has aged most poorly. Unfortunately, so much of what made Kory work when she was introduced was that naiveté and her raw displays of emotion that made her so alien even amongst a fantastic cast; she was the hot foreign exchange student and it worked great. However, when a character has been around for 30 years, you can’t write her as if she’s fresh off the bus—or spaceship—so a lot of what fueled Starfire has been stripped away and she’s too often played as bitter to try something different or falsely bright-eyed in attempt to recapture the glory. She’s at her most interesting around Dick Grayson playing off their long history, but he has evolved so much since they were seriously together that she’s almost like an anchor. I’m not sure quite what to do with Starfire, but I do feel she has too much untapped potential to waste. Her current spot in R.E.B.E.L.S. has some merit, but I think she’s more interesting as a stranger in a strange land on Earth. Perhaps with the Outsiders group I already mentioned? Serving as one of Oracle’s Birds of Prey and bonding/feuding with the other love of Dick Grayson’s life could certainly be interesting.

Gar Logan is another tricky fix as he embodies the Titan who is probably still a bit young to be in the big leagues—sure Supergirl is technically younger, but she’s more iconic and that carries with it a weird illusion of security—but comes off a bit as the skeevy college dropout who moved back home on the Teen Titans. A lot of Changeling was wrapped in being the “baby” of the NTT, but as with Starfire, it’s unrealistic for him not to have grown since that era. Geoff Johns and Ben Raab actually did a great job breaking Beast Boy out when they penned his miniseries, moving him up the dial a bit in large part by introducing his even more irresponsible cousin Matt for contrast and giving him a less experienced hero like Flamebird to provide guidance for. I think the Titans L.A. pitch that never was remains a good place for Gar and would like to see him heading up something like with guest appearances in the Titans book and elsewhere and whatever side projects the characters can support.


Anonymous said...

Is there a reason why you left off 2 of the SA titan members - Roy Harper (Speedy I / Arsenal / Red Arrow) & Garth (Aqualad I / Tempest)?

Ben Morse said...

I went with the definitive (to me) New Teen Titans line-up that served from issue #1 of that series through the Judas Contract; Roy and Garth were both (as you said) Silver Age.

JimmyGlenn711 said...

I wish Dick was Nightwing again, mostly because I am a die-hard Nightwing fan, but also because he can fit the role you explained much better as his own man, not at Batman-Lite.

As far as Wally goes, I am seriously disappointed with what DC has done (NOT DONE) with him. Your assessment is dead on, he should be the definitive JLA Flash.

I am pretty happy with Cyborg's role as Scientist/Mentor. In my mind he and Steel are probably really good friends... is that just me?

Ben Morse said...

The thing that bothers me about Cyborg as scientist is that I don't know where it came from. In NTT, he was a jock who gained some knowledge of technology mostly out of necessity. Even going back to Devin Grayson's Titans, he still didn't show any inclination toward science. Then, suddenly, he was super smart.

Dan said...

I agree - Cyborg becoming super mart all of a sudden had me thinking I'd missed something. Street smarts, who is also pretty switched on is more Vic.

Raven would be awesome in the role suggested, and the respect would do her character good. But yeah she has to age again.

And here's to Dick's return as Nightwing! JimmyGlenn711 nailed that one.

Tom Spurgeon said...

It always cracks me up when people use the actor's name instead of "David Wooderson."

David Wooderson/Tim Riggins is basically what they should do with Speedy, though.

Anonymous said...

Nightwing = Joey
Aqualad = Ross
Speedy = Chandler
Wonder Girl = Monica
Starfire = Rachel
Raven = Phoebe

JimmyGlenn711 said...

I wish I was better read in the Wolfman/Perez NTT.

In terms of Cyborg becoming more intelligent and tech savy, wasn't he able to commune with machinery when he had that weird shiny-gold omni-something powers? I guess you could bullshit that he retained that intimate understanding.

Plus, he musta picked up some science during the countless times hes had to hang at Star Labs for repairs? Right? Maybe?

Ben Morse said...

Tom: I didn't remember his character's name and was too lazy to look it up. Are you happy to have shamed me?!

Jimmy: I go to the doctor often enough, but I wouldn't trust me to take a blood sample if I were you. ;-)

Cooldude said...

Johns's Teen Titans: Kid's Game is one of my top favorite trade but it lost momentum around Infinite Crisis

Brian Pate said...

Has there been some sort of Abnett/Lanning New Warriors series announcement that I missed? That would be awesome.

Kyle said...

I find it strange that they killed off Garth and maimed Roy, but Starfire has just kind of wandered around. Of all the Titans, I would think she would be the one marked for death.
I do think you forgot her best moment in recent years: her pairing with Animal Man in 52 and beyond. Having someone who looked like Starfire crashing at Buddy's house was pretty great.

Kyle said...

And Beast Boy on a Doom Patrol team always made sense to me.

Ben Morse said...

Brian Pate: I feel like you're taunting me...

Kyle: There was some novelty appeal, but it just didn't fit long term.

Perplexio said...

I started collecting The New Titans around issue #57 or #58. But I did go back and get some of the back issues. I think my favorites were: NTT #39 (Dick & Wally both quitting), & NT #60, #61, & #65. Marv Wolfman really got the ball rolling on the Dick Grayson/Tim Drake fraternal bond with NT #65.

That being said I actually thoroughly enjoyed the Nightwing, Pantha, Red Star, Phantasm, Baby Wildbeest incarnation of the New Titans. It was truly bizarre and quite a drastic departure from the original incarnation of the group but still somewhat enjoyable.

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Matt Celis said...

Well obviously you haven't read the original issues because he was always intellectually gifted and scientifically and mechanically inclined.

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