The Teen Titans Project, Part XIV: 

The In-Between Year (1990)

 When you look back over the history of the New Teen Titans -- or any comic, really -- some years stand out more than others.  Some years are remembered for their greatness, while others are memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Yet other years seem to slip through the cracks of remembrance.  Neither great nor awful, they’re simply forgotten.  1990 is one of those in-between years.  1989 was renowned for epics that bookended the year -- “Who Is Wonder Girl?” and “A Lonely Place of Dying.”  1991 would be known for the yearlong epic “The Hunt.”  But 1990 was different.  It was a year of short stories and one-shots.  It was a year of small changes.  And, in retrospect, it’s a year that’s easily forgotten.

One of the more notable aspects of 1990 is the way in which the line-up was in flux.  The full team rarely went into action together.  Instead, Marv Wolfman and guest writers focused on smaller squads of four, five or six Titans.  Nightwing took a leave of absence from the Titans at the end of 1989 to help Batman.  His leave continued for most of 1990, and two different Titans filled his role on the team.  Speedy took his spot in the line-up and became a regular member of the Titans for the first time in over a decade (he had previously assisted as a guest star) while Cyborg took over as team leader.  

Vic wasn’t entirely comfortable as team leader.  Like Donna before him -- who took over the last time Dick had an extended absence -- Vic was worried that he couldn’t measure up to Nightwing’s leadership skills.  But Vic needn’t have worried.  He was a natural leader, insightful and decisive.  However, Vic’s tenure as leader was complicated by his personal life.  His relationship with Sarah Charles continued to deteriorate; he just wasn’t cut out for a long-distance relationship.  

Nightwing wasn’t the only Titan to miss time in 1990.  Gar Logan was forced by his father to temporarily resign from the team until his grades improved.  Gar was occasionally granted permission to help out on a specific adventure but he was an irregular member.  Donna Troy took time off as well to accompany Terry Long on a research trip to Greece.  She returned for one story before rejoining her husband in Europe.  Like Gar, she was an irregular member.  Joseph Wilson also seemed to be occasionally unavailable.  He didn’t take an official break, like the others, but he sometimes missed Titans business due to personal reasons.  Joe seemed more interested in painting and dating than he did in being a superhero.

With so many members missing, the Titans’ line-up centered on the foursome of Cyborg, Raven, Starfire and Speedy.  They were augmented, depending on the adventure, by Changeling, Jericho, Troia and Deathstroke.  Yes, you read that last word right.  1990 was also the year in which Deathstroke grew from being a relentless foe to an occasional ally. 

For the first story of 1990, the Titans fought against a plague that turned humans into beasts (#62-64, Jan-Mar).  Wolfman tried to give the story an added dimension by introducing Scourge, the villain behind the plague, but it was still a pretty straightforward werewolf tale.  The story is fairly forgettable and felt stretched out at three issues.  However, Wolfman did a good job of depicting the relationships within the team, especially considering the newly configured line-up.  Deathstroke’s addition as an ally was believable, as was his occasional tactical disagreement with new leader Cyborg. 

Issue #65 served two functions.  In one plot, it was a coda to the plague story as Raven cured the infected Titans and then struggled to cast off the plague herself.  In the other, Wolfman focused on Nightwing as he mentored Tim Drake in becoming Batman’s partner.  By the end of the issue, Wolfman merged the two stories together as Nightwing introduced the new Robin to the rest of the Titans.  Tom Grummett had been steadily growing as an artist over the past year and this issue marked another step forward for him.  He did a great job depicting the quieter teaching scenes.  Plus, his facial expressions achieved greater depth of emotion -- whether with Tim Drake’s embarrassment or Raven’s anguish. 

Raven took center stage in issues #66 and 67.  For the past couple of years, Raven had been exploring her emotions.  Previously, she had bottled them up as a way of withstanding her demonic father’s influence.  With her father’s defeat, she was finally able to let loose and feel.  However, she was inexperienced emotionally and that was especially evident in her relationship with her first boyfriend, Eric.  Eric turned out to be an energy vampire.  After depleting other human hosts, he decided to feed off of Raven instead.  I realize that this is a superhero comic and that there needs to be a supernatural element in it but personally, I would have been satisfied if Eric was simply a bad boyfriend and not a supervillain.  It reminded me of Starfire’s first boyfriend, way back in New Teen Titans #16 (1982), but that was a significantly better story.  Raven’s sense of hurt and betrayal would have been just as real if she found out that Eric was cheating on her (which he was!).  I had enjoyed Raven’s character arc for the past couple of years but this story was a letdown.

The next story featured the return of Danny Chase, as Barbara and Karl Kesel took a turn as guest-writers (#68 and 69).  The story was surprisingly good.  Danny wanted to prove to the Titans that they had made a mistake firing him so he goes undercover as a henchman to the Royal Flush Gang.  Finally, Danny was using the skills he learned in the CBI and not just his contacts.  He was still a whiny teenager, but not unreasonably so.  Of course, Danny got into trouble and the Titans stepped in to save the day.  The Kesels also did a good job of playing with our expectations.  The Royal Flush Gang thought they were working for the Joker, but they were really working for the Gambler.  It was a nice bit of misdirection and helped make this the best story of 1990. 

 Issue #70 was a Deathstroke solo story.  I don’t know if DC was already considering a solo title for Deathstroke at this point, but it certainly feels like a tryout.  For the record, Deathstroke’s own title would debut 10 months later so I guess they liked the results.  I was less impressed.  I liked Deathstroke’s guest appearance in the earlier plague story- and enjoyed his solo scenes as a subplot- but I wasn’t as enthused with this issue devoted entirely to the Terminator.  Even the Nightwing spotlight in #65 brought him into contact with the rest of the team. 

The Titans starred in a pair of annuals in the fall of 1990.  For their own title (Annual #6), they returned to Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran.  Once again, they became involved in a local war, helping the Tamaraneans resist another would-be tyrant.  The concept was pretty played out by this point.  Wolfman had difficulty distinguishing this story from the previous Tamaranean epics and I had trouble remembering it before reading it again.  However, the other annual was a lot more memorable and a lot more fun.  Barbara and Karl Kesel reunited the Titans West for Hawk & Dove Annual #1.  The art was a little plastic but the story was delightful.  Hank Hall introduced his new partner, Dawn, to his old teammates in the Titans with obvious embarrassment.  Flamebird was excited to put on her old costume, while Bumblebee had to practically drag Mal into action.  It was a fun reunion that offered enough new elements to keep it from being too nostalgic.

Meanwhile, George Perez took advantage of Donna Troy’s leave of absence from the Titans to have her guest-star in Wonder Woman (#47-48, Oct-Nov).  It was great to see Diana and Donna together.  Plus, Perez tied into recent events by pitting the two women against a similar plague of werebeasts as those the Titans had confronted at the beginning of the year.  It was a nice connection and Perez improved it significantly by tying the plague to Circe instead of Scourge.  The one stumble in this story is that it was the first interaction between Diana and Donna since their origins were retconned.  They were introduced to each other as if they had never met before, though they quickly became great friends- “just like sisters.”  Perez may have been making the best of an awkward situation, but it only served to remind us of the mixed up continuity at the time.   

 Finally, Wolfman and Grummett ended the year with the start of a new epic: issue #71 (Nov.) was the start of the “Titans Hunt” storyline.  The “Titans Hunt” opened in a way that was evocative of the classic “Judas Contract” story (#42, 1984).  Nightwing found clues showing that each of the Titans had been defeated.  This time, however, they had fallen at the hands of the Wildebeest.  Wolfman may have reused this story structure but it worked well.  It reestablished each of the characters in their personal lives and it created anticipation for a new epic.

Yet the biggest change in issue #71 may have been Tom Grummett’s art.  The 1990s marked a significant stylistic change in comics and Grummett joined the bandwagon in his own way.  The ‘80s had been about long-distance viewpoints (Jim Shooter’s “full figures in actions”).  The ‘90s would be about close-ups, fewer panels per page and action that felt like it was right in your face.  Although the style would be more associated with the Image artists like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, Grummett showed that the new approach could work very well for a cartoony artist with clean lines.  Grummett delivered a tour de force in issue #71.  He alternated between present time and flashbacks, between quiet scenes and all-out action, and the story felt immediate and powerful.  Grummett became the first great Titans artist since George Perez with this issue, precisely because he abandoned Perez’s mannerisms.  Every other artist had tried to follow Perez’s footsteps and always fell short, despite some otherwise excellent work.  Grummett embarked on a new path and, in doing so, made the Titans his own. 

 

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Great roundup, Chris! I particularly like your comments about Grummet's art, as that seems to be the biggest change as the year moved forward. I'm going to have to pull out those issues and see for myself! 

The Royal Flush Gang story was my favorite post-Perez/post-Crisis Titans tale, good enough for me to forgive them for bringing back Danny Chase!

Somebody should make a list of all the comic and TV appearances of the Royal Flush Gang. They just popped up in the Flash TV show. I think they are high on the list of most-used characters.

They're great utility villains. They've got a gimmick, but it's easy to understand and not tied into any one hero. And they can be as powerful/pathetic as you like, because there have been so many iterations of the gang.

...I liked that early 00sis Superman story where the RFG were presented as a template which dissaffected youth adopt as a gang/criminal idenity , those teenagers adopting different of the RFG's identities .

 Was that concept ever used again ?

Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:

They're great utility villains. They've got a gimmick, but it's easy to understand and not tied into any one hero. And they can be as powerful/pathetic as you like, because there have been so many iterations of the gang.

@Emerkeith: that sounds a lot like the core concept of the Titans 1990 story, actually.

Thought the same thing when Patsy Walker's boyfriend/husband dating clear back to the 1940s suddenly put on a really stupid looking costume and started calling himself Maddog. It was like they hadn't planned to make him a supervillain but at the last second an editor said give him a costume and a villain name if he's going to be a bad guy, and they rushed to come up with something before the deadline.

Chris Fluit said: 

I realize that this is a superhero comic and that there needs to be a supernatural element in it but personally, I would have been satisfied if Eric was simply a bad boyfriend and not a supervillain.

 

I always enjoy seeing Tom Grummett's art. He, like Don Newton and Kerry Gammill, are underrated. 

Always wondered why Gammill didn't get more jobs.

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