The Teen Titans Project, Part XIII:
From Donna Troy to Tim Drake (1989)
The New Teen Titans were one of the greatest titles of the 1980s, but they entered 1989 in the midst of a distressing slump. The Powers That Be at DC must have realized they needed to fix the Titans because they authorized significant changes in an attempt to restore the title to its former glory. The Titans would pull out of their long dive, but they wouldn’t quite reach the heights they had previously achieved. In 1989, the Titans would settle into a new groove as a solid superhero title but they could no longer claim to be one of the greatest comics on the stands.
The changes were introduced in issue #50, which was published in December ’88. The first change was to the title as The New Titans officially dropped the “Teen” from their name. The most noticeable change was the return of George Perez as the series’ artist. Issue #50 features a stunning Perez cover with classic composition. The interior art was nearly as impressive. I was especially pleased with the splash page showing the Titans returning from the West Coast, evoking their return from Tamaran in a much earlier issue. Perez would draw the next six issues, depicting stunning scenery and detailed facial expression. He brought grandeur and humanity in equal measure.
Issue #50 was also the start of a brand new “Who Is Wonder Girl?” epic. The story had been made necessary by the work Marv Wolfman and George Perez had done on other titles. Wolfman and Perez restarted DC’s continuity through Crisis on Infinite Earths and Perez then introduced Wonder Woman as a brand new hero in his well-regarded run on her series. Since Wonder Woman was a new hero, she couldn’t have rescued Donna Troy from a fire 15 years earlier. Donna therefore needed a revised origin. Wolfman began planting the seeds in 1988 with Donna mentioning memory problems at one point and referring to a firefighter who rescued her at another.
However, Wolfman and Perez didn’t plan on making a minor fix to Donna’s history. They decided instead to completely revamp it. Apparently, the Titans of old had abducted Donna in her youth. Along with 11 others, she was brought to a distant planet and trained as a warrior. The ancient Titans gave her powers, erased her memory and sent her back to Earth. But now the gods were in trouble because one of their former students had turned against them. The gods asked Donna and the rest of the Titans to intervene, rescue the surviving students and defeat the insane troublemaker. The modern Titans headed off into space, rescued a couple of Donna’s former classmates and saved the day.
Despite Perez’s excellent art, the new “Who Is Wonder Girl?” story is a mess. It fails as an origin as the simplest origin is almost always the best. Donna’s new history was needlessly complicated -- the old Titans, but in space. It introduced extraneous characters. There were 12 trainees but 8 of them were killed off before the story started. It also didn’t make sense. If the Titans wanted a representative on Earth, why erase her memory? Hindsight is 20/20 but Wolfman and Perez could have established a connection to the ancient Titans without all of the space opera stuff -- they had already met, after all. Wolfman and Perez’s attempt didn’t actually fix Donna’s origin and, though I don’t like to blame a story for stuff that happens later, they created a pattern in which every subsequent writer would try to patch Donna’s history. They also gave Donna Troy a new superhero name, the nonsensical Troia, and Perez devised one of his needlessly complicated costumes. I like seeing the Titans grow up – Robin to Nightwing, Kid Flash to Flash -- this was a misstep.
In the past, I’ve tried to defend the story itself. I’ve argued that it’s a decent space epic if you ignore its role as a new origin. I don’t believe that anymore. For one thing, you can’t really divorce this story from its role. Donna’s fabricated connection to the other trainees is the heart of the story and there’s no reason for it without that. For another, it isn’t that great a space epic. It’s bloated and pompous and I find my eyes glazing over several times during the later issues.
The one good thing about “Who Is Wonder Girl?” is that Danny Chase began to fade into the background. I don’t know if George Perez deserves the credit, but Marv Wolfman finally owned up to the fact that Danny was never going to be a fan favorite. The Titans decided to leave Danny behind when they went into space. When DC’s Invasion crossover hits, Danny tries to recruit a team of replacement Titans but gets rejected. Finally, Terry Long drops by Titans Tower and the two talk. Terry Long is a wise father figure and Danny, though he would hate to admit it, is an insecure little kid. Danny Chase would hover in the background for the rest of 1989 but thankfully he would no longer be a featured member of the Titans.
One other repercussion of the “Who Is Wonder Girl” epic is that George Perez was no longer able to maintain a monthly schedule on two different titles. That meant late issues, fill-in stories and guest artists. Surprisingly, that wasn’t as bad as it could have been. A late issue doesn’t matter when you’re reading a series 25 years later. The Mark Bright fill-in was pretty good and the substitute artist was a young Tom Grummett. The summer issues actually represented a return to form, despite the frequent artistic changes.
Issue #56 was clearly a fill-in story yet it was executed well and carried a positive nostalgia vibe. Mal and Karen Duncan take Sarah Charles out for dinner and tell her about one of their old adventures as the Teen Titans of yore. Wolfman and Bright play with more than a dozen heroes, using the full Titans East and West squads, while retelling Gnarrk’s origin. It’s a good fun tale, but it also converges with the current series. Wolfman uses the framing sequence to reconnect us with Sarah Charles, Cyborg’s girlfriend, and to reintroduce the Duncans. Karen even rejoins the Titans as Bumblebee for a few issues while the team is shorthanded.
The next three issues feature the return of Wildebeest and the introduction of Tom Grummett. The Titans are once again bewildered as to the Wildebeest’s identity and motives. This time, Wildebeest targets Cyborg, taking over his systems remotely and using him to attack the other Titans. The clues point to someone at STAR Labs and that causes additional friction between Vic and Sarah. I’ve mentioned before that I like the Wildebeest as a Titans nemesis. I like his unpredictability. I also like the Tom Grummett art. Tom has a distinctive flair, and he’s not trying to be another Perez clone. It’s a nice change of pace for the Titans and it helps them look younger.
The Titans starred in two annuals in the summer of 1989. The first was their own annual and it was the culmination of a story that had been simmering in the background for some time. During 1988, Wolfman had planted clues about a secret organization, the Children of the Sun. They were the puppet-masters behind the awful OREH story and had briefly appeared in other tales. I thought they had potential, and could take the place of the HIVE in the Titans’ rogues’ gallery. However, when they finally stepped into the spotlight in annual #5, they were a bit of a letdown. They were too similar to the Church of Blood. Their connection to the Titans of myth wasn’t clear -- plus it contradicted the recent depiction of the gods in “Who Is Wonder Girl?” And they were shoehorned in as adversaries to Vic Stone’s dad without foreshadowing. I also wasn’t impressed with the Chris Wozniak art.
The other annual was Secret Origins #3. George Perez wrote the story and a dozen different artists joined him. I can see what Perez was trying to do but honestly, it didn’t work for me. Perez used the old Silver Age villain, the Gargoyle, to torment Dick Grayson’s dreams. Through the series of dreams, Dick then recounted the history of the Titans while struggling with Gargoyle induced self-doubt. I’m not a big fan of dream sequences in general. They can be a storytelling cheat. Plus, the Gargoyle isn’t a strong enough villain to sustain an extra-sized story. Dick should have dealt with the self-doubt by page 10 so the story felt needlessly drawn out.
The New Titans began the year with an epic that misfired. They ended the year with another epic that hit the mark. “A Lonely Place of Dying” is one of the greatest Titans stories and one of the greatest Batman tales. The second Robin, Jason Todd, was dead at the hands of the Joker. Marv Wolfman and George Perez were given the opportunity to introduce a new, third Robin. Wolfman laid the groundwork in Batman. “Year 3” was a terrific tale in which Dick Grayson recounted his origin as Robin while investigating new crimes connected to the Zucco crime family. A young boy had witnessed the tragic death of Dick’s parents and that boy would surface again in the Batman/New Titans crossover. The boy was Tim Drake. He was Robin’s biggest fan. He had figured out that Dick Grayson was Robin and Bruce Wayne was Batman. He also knew that the second Robin had died and that Batman had become unhinged. Tim set out to convince Dick to resume the mantle of Robin as a stabilizing influence on Batman. However, Dick couldn’t go back to being Robin anymore than he could go back to being 13. Instead, Batman and Nightwing teamed up to fight Two-Face. Tim realized they were walking into a trap so, with Alfred’s blessing, he donned the Robin costume. He rescued his heroes and the three of them defeated Two-Face together.
It’s almost astonishing that Marv Wolfman should do such a great job of introducing a young new character after flubbing Danny Chase’s debut the year before but Tim Drake is everything Danny’s not. He looks up to the other heroes where Danny looked down his nose at them. He appreciates the symbolism of costumes and codenames where Danny was dismissive of them. He’s optimistic where Danny was cynical. He’s humble where Danny was cocky. He’s smart but he’s not a self-promoter. He uses the computer where Danny used contacts. And he saves the day, but in a way that’s entirely plausible and that relied on Alfred’s help. Tim Drake would go on to become arguably the greatest Robin ever and this story set him up to be the brilliant, respectful sidekick that Batman deserved.
One minor quibble with this epic is that the Titans were essentially sidelined for the duration. I thought it was a problem when a similar thing happened during the Dial-H-for-Hero story in 1988 but I didn’t mind it all here. Wolfman checks in on the rest of the Titans in subplots. Speedy rejoins the team in Nightwing’s absence. And the Titans are briefly shown in their private lives. Wolfman also uses the story as an excuse to have Dick fire Danny Chase from the Titans, finally ridding the team (and the readers) of their resident pest. “A Lonely Place of Dying” is a great story. It shines a spotlight on Nightwing and confirms Dick Grayson as an adult hero while giving Batman a great new sidekick. It confirms the connections between the Titans and the rest of the DC world. And it keeps the Titans moving, with desirable subtractions (Danny) and interesting additions (Speedy).
Despite the return of George Perez, 1989 got off to a rough start for The New Titans. But by the end of the year, they were back on solid footing. They had a new penciler in Tom Grummett and they had participated in a great crossover. Things were looking up, even if the Titans were no longer the greatest superhero title on the spinner rack.
Poor Donna's continuity implants just kept getting more and more nonsensical, didn't they? While I wasn't fond of the Troia name (altho it's a shame that the Titans never fought a foe clever enough to point out that she and Jericho may not have made the best choice in each naming themselves after cities best known for being destroyed), or her vague additional powers (which seemed mostly to be stuff that Starfire & Raven could already do), I have to admit, that was my favorite of Perez' over-designed costumes, altho I can't for the life of me say why it appeals to me, while Jericho's outfit makes me want to run screaming. On the other hand, the later Troia outfits always looked liked she'd accidentally gotten Star Boy's stuff back from the dry cleaner by mistake.
I loved Tom Grummett's work on the title--the other non-Perez artist were good, but somehow, Grummett was the only one of them who really made the book feel like the Teen Titans.
As good as it was to see Danny Chase shown the door, I'm not sure if, to this day, Wolfman has figured out just how badly that character misfired--even in the Games graphic novel, he seemed to be trying to force the readers to care about the little brat (admittedly, I have no way of knowing how much of that was part of the original story of so long ago, and how much was of more recent efforts), and for the most part, we continue to show Danny the combination of contempt and indifference he deserves.
While Danny's presence in the GN was no doubt due to when it was begun, his specific arc in the novel really felt like a last ditch effort to create sympathy for the kid, especially since it was at odds with Danny's "actual" fate. Ok, so maybe I got that backwards, and what happened in Games was what was originally meant to be Danny's fate, but since the GN ran so far behind schedule, something else happened to him instead.
I've said before that sometimes writers love some characters so much that they forget to show us why we should love them.
I've never conjectured before as to WHY writers love some characters so much (that readers despise), but at a guess I'd say it's because they're such jerks they are fun to write and/or they're such jerks they stir the pot and create launch points for stories. I think Quicksilver has played that role for years, and Hawkeye did too in the early Avengers, although neither of them inspired the sheer loathing that Danny Chase did. He's the Scrappy Doo of comic books. (Yes, I hated him too.)
I guess there's a fine line between the jerks that stir the pot, and the jerks that make you wonder why anyone would let them near their pot in the first place.
Dave Elyea said:
I guess there's a fine line between the jerks that stir the pot, and the jerks that make you wonder why anyone would let them near their pot in the first place.
ALL jerks make me wonder why anyone would let them near the pot in the first place.
Commander Benson has made the observation more than once that no combat unit would tolerate members that disrupted unit cohesion. So superhero teams keeping characters like Quicksilver and Danny Chase around is just one more of those impossible things we have to accept before cracking the cover.
That is something I liked in Infinity, Inc. - the team was not structured as a combat unit and, in fact, rarely even met together at the same place. Hard to follow, but entertaining in a way that a more militaristic team could not be.
Danny Chase is really not very comparable to Hawkeye or even Quicksilver. Marv Wolfman only very rarely put a line in Danny's mouth that did not make him appear insufferable.
In a way he reminds me of Terry Long, who is another character that many fans disliked a lot, apparently quite against Wolfman's wishes. But Terry was shown as a nice enough man (IMO), while Danny was just continually obnoxious.
It was not a particularly bad or badly written characterization. It was certainly convincing, if nothing else. But it melded badly with the unlikely circunstance of his being a Titan for no discernible reason. He would work far better as supporting cast, if a reason to keep him visible could be found.
Interestingly, that characterization reminds me a lot of Gar's early appearances in Doom Patrol. Maybe Marv Wolfman hoped to recapture a bit of that fascinating dynamics that he had with Mento and the Patrol back in the day, but the Titans are too different from the Patrol. Their motivations are more varied and less constrained by their senses of duty.
You may be right about the Doom Patrol, Luis. I've often suspected that sometimes writers do things because writers they admire did them, but without the original context it just doesn't work. Perhaps Wolfman looked at Beast Boy in early Doom Patrol or Hawkeye in early Avengers and thought "I need a character like that." So he invents Danny Chase, but it's not organic enough to be as convincing or enjoyable as the earlier efforts.
Which is a fancy way of re-stating what you just said. The only difference is I'm speculating that many writers do this, without a shred of evidence to support it!
Was Speedy still a smart@$$ at that point? Somewhere along the way he went from being the team jerk to a tragic figure of some kind, with the baby and all.