The Teen Titans Project, Part XI:
Out with the Old, In with the New (1987)
It doesn’t always make sense to review a title year by year. Major storylines sometimes carry over from one year to the next. Major transitions sometimes occur in the middle of the year rather than at the beginning or end. I’ve occasionally fudged the numbers for a few earlier reviews- shifting a December issue to the next year if it starts a new story or claiming a January issue for the previous year it if concludes one. But there’s no way to fudge the numbers for 1987. The New Teen Titans begin the year by finishing a storyline that had been running since the final quarter of 1985 and they end the annum by introducing new storylines that will run for the next several years.
As I mentioned in the 1986 article, Marv Wolfman and Eduardo Barreto spent the previous year breaking the Titans down and building them back up again. That process is nearly complete at the onset of 1987, but not quite. Nightwing and Raven are still captives of the Church of Brother Blood, and Aqualad is still Mento’s prisoner. At the end of issue #25 (Nov. ’86), Changeling made the decision for the team to rescue Nightwing and Raven first. Donna Troy then assembled a Titans team that included returning members Wally West and Jason Todd- the new Flash and Robin respectively. Wally was a founding member of the Titans as Kid Flash while Jason served on Donna’s replacement team in issues #20 and 21.
The Titans arrive in Zandia in issue #26 (Dec. ’86) but Marv Wolfman prolonged the story with a couple of preliminary battles. They fought a new villain named Twister in an otherwise forgettable story. However, that issue served at least two purposes. The delayed action helped build tension, while Twister’s backstory demonstrated Brother Blood’s impact on the populace. Brother Blood had been the Titans’ version of Jim Jones, but Wolfman now added a little bit of Doctor Doom by showing Blood’s tyranny. The Titans then fight the Brotherhood of Evil in issue #27 (Jan. 87). Wolfman ratcheted up the action another notch and there are some pretty good fight scenes between the Titans and the Brotherhood. I really like Jason Todd in this storyline. He’s tentative as the newest member but he doesn’t get in anyone else’s way and he finds ways to contribute on the margins.
At last, Wolfman and Barreto embark on an epic four-issue battle with the church of Brother Blood. This is the New Teen Titans’ third fight with Blood following issues #21-22 (1982) and #40-41 (1984) in the first series and, in my opinion, it’s the best one. Wolfman borrows from those earlier battles, retracing some of the same steps. For example, Nightwing is brainwashed for a second time and fights by Blood’s side. Yet Wolfman also adds new twists to old ideas. For example, Raven may be a villain’s pawn again but, in this case, Blood manipulates her naivete. Raven proclaims in issue #29 that she’s conquered her dark side yet she doesn’t see how Blood is using her empathy for his own ends. Wolfman also builds on earlier elements to add depth to the story. For example, Wolfman shows us how Blood manipulates people through his carefully staged resurrection. Additional groundwork was laid in Annual #2 (1986) when Wolfman depicted Brother Blood’s origin, showing us his regeneration powers as well as the way Brother Blood passed his mantle to each generation. Finally, I appreciate the new elements that add to the story’s gravitas. For example, Frances Kane puts together a rescue team of Green Lanterns, Infinitors and Justice Leaguers but, when Blood’s resurrection causes riots around the world, the rescue team focuses on peacekeeping efforts instead. In addition, Wolfman shows cracks in Blood’s organization, as Mother Mayhem turns against Blood in order to protect her unborn son. It all adds up to a grand epic and a fitting conclusion to a 20-month storyline.
By all rights, the Brother Blood epic should have led into a second epic against Mento. The Titans had abandoned Aqualad in his clutches after all. Part of the rationale for rescuing Nightwing and Raven was so that they could confront Mento at full strength. However, the real world got in the way. By the end of the Brother Blood epic, Marv Wolfman was feeling burned out and he temporarily relinquished the reins to Paul Levitz. Levitz provided dialogue for the last two issues of the Brother Blood arc but, for one reason or another, Levitz didn’t resume the Aqualad-Mento arc. Maybe DC wanted Wolfman to finish the tale when he returned. Or maybe they were waiting for Len Wein to finish using Mento’s Hybrid team over in Blue Beetle. Whatever the real world reason, it feels a little odd in-story that the Titans would forget Aqualad like that.
That problem was partially resolved in the New Teen Titans’ sister title, Teen Titans Spotlight. The solo title had launched in 1986 with a pretty good Starfire story about apartheid in South Africa. However, Spotlight went quickly downhill. Wolfman’s second story was a Jericho spotlight that featured an old girlfriend, an ex-HIVE agent and an entirely predictable betrayal. The story stretched to four issues (#3-6, Oct. ’86 to Jan. ’87) but could have been easily handled in two. After that, Spotlight became a fill-in title featuring guest writers and artists telling stories rarely mattered. Mike Baron and Jackson Guice did their best with a Hawk story in issues #7-8 that had the ultra-conservative Hawk learn a lesson and become an environmental conservationist but, truthfully, they only proved that Hawk needed a new Dove (he would get one the following year in his own series). The story that had the greatest chance of meaning something was the Aqualad spotlight in issue #10 by John Ostrander and Erik Larsen. This was Aqualad’s big escape from Mento’s clutches, but they spent most of the issue on flashbacks filling in Aqualad’s back-story instead of focusing on the more-important escape. The escape was almost an afterthought and, strangely, it wasn’t even mentioned in the parent title.
Meanwhile, Paul Levitz provided a couple of done-in-one stories for New Teen Titans. In issue #32, the Titans head to a bed ’n’ breakfast for a weekend getaway until they stumble upon a murder mystery. It’s actually a pretty good story, if you ignore the delayed questions about Mento. We get to the see the Titans in their civilian identities, and it’s nice to see them relax and joke around. Levitz also does a good job of highlighting Nightwing’s detective ability. The next story, in issue #33, features Zandian terrorists and a bomb threat against New York’s bridges. It’s not good and a young Erik Larsen doesn’t help matters with his inconsistent art.
Marv Wolfman then returns with a couple of one-shots of his own. He quickly wraps up the unfinished Mento story in issue #34. The Hybrid aren’t exactly my favorite villains but this story feels like a let-down. Changeling has been worried about his stepfather’s mental health since before Donna Troy got married and that story deserved more than a quick and tidy conclusion. At least we got to see the new Raven in action, healing Steve Dayton rather than defeating him. The second one-shot is awful. This time, regular artist Eduardo Barreto needed a break and the Pat Broderick art in issue #35 is even worse than Larsen. The main story about a couple who try to create a new paradise in New York City is a mess. The lone bright spot comes from the subplots about the Titans’ private lives. Kory and Dick go dancing as they reestablish their relationship and Raven rents an apartment as she starts her new life. It’s nice to see Raven happy and contented, even if the other Titans occasionally temper her new enthusiasm with real world advice. Yet despite a decent one-shot (#32) and some positive character development, the summer of 1987 was one of the lowest points in Titans’ history.
Teen Titans Spotlight continued to plod along as well. The editors at least got the bright idea of focusing on the major characters and they featured consecutive stories about Wonder Girl, Cyborg and Nightwing over the summer (issues #12-14). The stories aren’t great but they help flesh out relationships: Donna and her husband Terry, Victor and his girlfriend Sarah, and Dick and his mentor Bruce. One minor complaint is that they didn’t bother to feature Two-Face on the cover of issue #13. He’s a major villain and, you would think, a major draw. They at least put Batman on the cover of issue #14. Later in the year, Tony Isabella and Chuck Patton turn the spotlight on S.T.A.R. Labs where Thunder and Lightning work as security and where Frances Kane finally adopts a superhero code name as Magenta. It’s a decent two-part tale, and one of the few Spotlight stories that has any lasting effect, but you wouldn’t miss much if you skipped Spotlight for all of 1987 (or, entirely, for that matter).
Marv Wolfman returned from his leave of absence full of new ideas for The New Teen Titans. After wrapping up old stories in desultory fashion over the summer, Wolfman finally introduced the first of these new ideas in the year’s final quarter. It was kind of exciting and Wolfman wrote eloquently about his renewed passion in the Titans’ letter pages. Wolfman confessed that he too was tired of old villains like Brother Blood, Trigon and the Fearsome Five and he planned to pit the Titans against dangerous new foes. He was also excited about adding new blood to the team as the characters were getting older and had been together for a long time. Unfortunately, Wolfman’s new ideas were a mixed bag. Some were pretty good. Others were awful.
The new era of New Teen Titans began in issues #36-37 with a brand new foe in Wildebeest and it’s an auspicious beginning. Wildebeest is a credible threat. He’s immune to Jericho’s powers. He comes at the Titans sideways instead of head-on. And he deceives the Titans with robot duplicates. It’s also a major turning point for Starfire. She’s fully adopted Earth as her home and is trying to acclimate to human ethics- such as our prohibition against killing- yet Wildebeest tricks her into killing a double. Previously, other Titans tried to hold Starfire back. This time, Starfire serves as her own conscience and is devastated that she may have taken a life.
Marv Wolfman isn’t the only one with renewed passion for the Titans. Eduardo Barreto comes into his own as an artist during this period. It couldn’t have been easy for Barreto to become the full-time artist after Perez decided to re-launch Wonder Woman instead of returning to the Titans. Barreto was a solid craftsman but he wasn’t flashy. However, in these issues, Barreto begins to adopt Perez’s mannerisms and the Titans look better than they have in years. Barreto uses inset panels to focus on Wildebeest’s eyes, setting up a stark contrast with Jericho. He jumps back and forth between live action and television screens to create a sense of being monitored. And, in one of his best moments, Barreto uses the full length of the page to show Raven rescue Nightwing from a potentially deadly fall. Barreto will never be Perez but, in this story, he proves a good approximation.
Barreto’s improved ingenuity carries over into the crossover with Infinity Inc. that closed out the year. The Teen Titans and the Infinitors team up to stop the Ultra-Humanite, who now possesses the body of a rare white ape. However, the Ultra-Humanite becomes the magnet for a cluster of energy and trashes New York City like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Barreto depicts the energy creature with a vivid blend of blues, purples and reds, reminding me of George Perez’s classic pencils during the Trigon saga. I enjoyed the crossover and it’s a nice example of the post-Crisis universe works. The Infinitors are no longer secluded on Earth-2 but are able to travel from L.A. to New York to join forces with heroes their own age. I would have been even happier if Infinity Inc. had left Dr. Bones behind as I find characters that speak in rhyme to be annoying; it’s rarely done well and detracts from the story more than it adds.
After a muddled middle, the New Teen Titans ended the year on a high point… almost. The Wildebeest and Infinity Inc. stories were both well done and would have made for a good end to the year. However, Marv Wolfman had more characters to introduce and they debuted in Annual #3. One was a new villain, Godiva. I think I know what Wolfman was trying to do with Godiva. Most of the Titans’ villains were deadly serious and Godiva was an intentional counterpoint. She was an international thief who enjoyed her job. She seemed flighty but her happy-go-lucky exterior hid a cold heart. She didn’t care who died as long as she got her way. Even though I get what Wolfman was doing, that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. Godiva changed too quickly for the story to have any internal consistency. As a new major villain, she was a bit of a misfire.
The other new introduction was even worse: Danny Chase, teenaged hero. Godiva killed Danny’s parents and he wanted revenge. When a US spy agency refused to intervene, Danny used their contacts to recruit the Teen Titans. But Danny wasn’t content to hire the Titans. He wanted to accompany them, citing his credentials as a teenaged spy while hiding the telekinetic powers that would have been more persuasive. Wolfman may have wanted Danny to come across as mysteriously intriguing but he came off as annoyingly conceited instead. When the Titans inexplicably added Danny to the team at the end of the story, he arrogantly rejected a costume and a codename, telling the Titans that he would join under his rules or not at all. It’s not like every character has to follow convention, but it’s better if you’re not a jerk about it. Wolfman boasted about this great new character in an editorial at the end of the annual but Danny Chase was more Cousin Oliver than Kitty Pryde. Danny Chase is my least-favorite character in comics. His addition to the title meant that 1988 would be as bumpy as 1987.
Enjoy a double dose of Fluit Notes this week- yesterday's review column and the latest installment of my Teen Titans Project today.
One tidbit I didn't mention in the column is how much it was to see all of the DC house ads from this time period. This is a great time for DC, even if it wasn't a great time for the New Teen Titans, and it makes me happy to see ads for Alan Moore's Watchmen, John Byrne's Man of Steel, Frank Miller's Batman Year One, Giffen & Maguire's Justice League, George Perez's Wonder Woman, Baron and Guice's Flash, John Ostrander's Suicide Squad and Mike Grell's Green Arrow The Longbow Hunters.
1987 was the year I switched from newsstand reprints to the Baxter series. It's been a long time since I've read these issues, and about the only thing I remember from these stories was the debut of Wildebeest. Of course, that character had some staying power. I sure don't remember Godiva. I wish I could forget Danny Chase.
I really like the Barreto covers. Count me as someone who didn't appreciate his artwork at the time, which was just me being snobby in my younger days because Barreto wasn't Perez.
It occurs to me that, for all my complaints about Raven & Starfire and all their untapped potential, its obvious that enough had been done with them to make me wish that more had. After all, I have no complaints about either Kole or Danny Chase, other than both took up more page space than they were worth.