The Teen Titans Project, Part XV: 

The Hunt (1991)

 

            The start of a new year is always exciting.  It’s full of promise and hope.  Experience tells us those hopes will likely be dashed and promises unfulfilled yet the start of the year remains a time of unconcealed optimism.  1991 was like that for The New Titans.  After a half-decade of ups and downs, The New Titans opened 1991 with the promise of becoming great again. 

            In the last issue of 1990, #71, writer Marv Wolfman and artist Tom Grummett launched a grand new epic adventure, “The Titans Hunt.”  The story echoed classic tales from the Titans’ past.  The introductory issue evoked the classic “Judas Contract” as Nightwing raced around New York City discovering that all of his teammates had already been defeated.  “The Hunt” also harked back to 1986 when Wolfman methodically broke down the Titans so that he could build them back up again.  It’s a necessary strategy for a writer- Elmore Leonard allegedly advised young writers to “beat up your characters” as a way of creating tension and sympathy.  However, “The Hunt” wasn’t merely a repetition of the past.  Tom Grummett had grown as an artist, developing a new style that was close and personal, clear and sharp, exciting and intense.  In addition, Marv Wolfman introduced new twists to help “The Hunt” stand out from earlier storylines.  For example, the former villain behind “the Judas Contract,” Deathstroke the Terminator stepped to the fore to find and protect the Titans. 

            With issue #72 (Jan. 1991), “The Hunt” spread beyond the core team of active Titans.  The Wildebeest Society falsified a summons for former Titans Aqualad and Golden Eagle who were then ambushed and quickly defeated.  Both heroes were left for dead.  It’s become cliché to kill off a character as a way of instilling a story with significance yet the apparent death of two Titans definitely raised the stakes for “The Hunt.”  The reader’s fear for the characters resulted in real tension and interest in the story. 

            Over the next several issues, Deathstroke and Steve Dayton raced to rescue former Titans and Titan associates from the Wildebeests.  Deathstroke managed to save Raven’s mother, Arella, and bring her on board as an unlikely ally.  However, they failed to reach Danny Chase on time and the teams’ requisite brat became the third casualty of “The Hunt.”  They did add other allies in the mysterious Phantasm, a ghost like figure with uncanny knowledge of the Titans, and the volatile Pantha, who had her own reasons for hating the Wildebeests. 

Meanwhile, Nightwing was working a different angle.  Wolfman and Grummett made it look like he had been defeated at the end of issue 71.  However, they dropped hints at the same time that Nightwing hadn’t actually lost his battle but had defeated the Wildebeest off-panel and had stolen his costume.  While Deathstroke and Dayton were trying to rescue Titan allies and friends, Nightwing was infiltrating the Wildebeest society as a spy.  Wolfman deftly toyed with the reader, not confirming that Nightwing’s new role for several issues, while following a nameless Wildebeest at odds with the operation.  However, an unintentional rivalry with another agent led to Nightwing’s downfall.  At the end of issue #74, Nightwing was exposed as a spy and captured by the Wildebeests. 

For four issues, Wolfman and Grummett crafted a taut thriller.  The regular Titans were missing.  Former Titans were dead or, at least, presumed dead.  Nightwing was captured.  And Deathstroke’s unlikely team of allies seemed too weak and disorganized to take on the Wildebeests.  The first act of was excellent and exciting.  “The Hunt” was shaping up to be the Titans’ best story in years. 

However, Issue #75 was the first chink in the armor.  It had a great structure.  Wolfman followed each of the significant characters one at a time, showing how each arrived separately at the Wildebeest stronghold for the climactic battle.  The battle itself was pretty good too with the unlikely allies fighting a multitude of Wildebeests.  But Wolfman took a wrong turn with the unmasking of the Wildebeest leader.  It’s supposed to be the big shocking twist.  But a shocking twist still has to make sense.  The reader should say, “Of course, I should have known!” not “What the heck?”  This revelation definitely fell in the latter category.  Perhaps Wolfman had backed himself into a corner by using so many prior red herrings as potential Wildebeests.  But the revelation that Jericho was the brains behind the Wildebeest society was, quite frankly, unbelievable.  That lack of plausibility undercut an otherwise powerful story. 

There was another structural problem with issue #75 as well.  Simply stated, it wasn’t the end.  It was a false finish.  The Titans would have to come back and fight Jericho/Wildebeest two more times before the story concluded.  A five-issue “Hunt” might have ranked as the last great Titans tale, even with an ill-conceived twist ending.  Instead it became a 16-month monstrosity.

The battle continued in issue #76.  Jericho showed the first signs that something more was going on when he released a spectral form like Raven, except that his form took the shape of a lion.  Jericho then escaped the battle and blew up the Wildebeest headquarters on his way out.  The heroes retreated to the Titans Tower to regroup, but the respite didn’t last long as the Wildebeests attacked.  The Titans escaped in a jet but Titans Tower was destroyed, becoming the second building blown to smithereens that day.  Although I was disappointed with the big revelation in issue #75, I’ll admit that I still enjoyed the action of issue #76.  It’s hard to hate big explosions. 

            Issue #77 represented a retrenchment.  Nightwing and Deathstroke, now paired as co-leaders, both realized that the current group wasn’t strong enough to face Jericho.  In issue #75, Jericho had tied his captive Titans to rockets and launched them to the ends of the earth.  The current team decided to retrieve their comrades before making a second assault.  They travelled to Russia where they met Red Star, an occasional ally from years past.  Red Star then introduced them to a rebuilt Cyborg, who had been damaged in the rocket’s explosion.  I try not to judge a comic or an idea by what happens later but it’s hard not to do that with Cyborg’s transformation.  This was the first step on a road to dehumanizing Cyborg.  He was now mindless and moved about by remote control.  It seemed kind of interesting but it turned out to be a storytelling dead end.  It would be years before Cyborg was a useful character again and he wouldn’t be fully restored until the New 52.  

            The downtime in issue #77 also allowed Wolfman to introduce a significant subplot. After the destruction of the Wildebeest headquarters and Titans Tower, city councilwoman Elizabeth Alderman made it her mission to dismantle the Titans.  She held them responsible for the damage, wanted them to pay an indemnity and proposed banning them from New York City.  She would be a thorn in the Titans’ side for the next year and a half. 

            Donna Troy returned from her travels abroad with her husband Terry in issue #78.  She was shocked to see that the Tower had been destroyed and set about to discover what had happened to the Titans.  Meanwhile, the rest of the Titans returned from Russia with the remote-controlled Cyborg and Red Star in tow.  Donna didn’t recognize the new Titans and initially fought Pantha, thinking she was behind her teammates’ disappearance.  The dispute was resolved but the new Titans were immediately attacked, first by the Wildebeests who kidnapped Nightwing and then by a second faceless foe who kidnapped Donna. 

            Wolfman and Grummett also spent a fair amount of time in issues #78 and 79 focusing on Jericho.  We got to see his interaction with, and domination of, the Wildebeests.  We also got to see him in quieter moments playing the piano and painting.  Finally, we got a longer look at his lion-shaped spectral form.  It was smart storytelling.  Even as the Titans retrenched as a team, Wolfman retrenched as a writer.  He tried to show us how this new Jericho was consistent with the old one, while also displaying his newly corrupted nature.  I appreciate the effort, but I still wasn’t buying it.

            Issue #79 was filled with character moments.  We saw Terry Long’s grief and despair over the sudden loss of his wife.  We saw Arella’s grief and guilt over her past involvement with Trigon. We saw Deathstroke step in as an unlikely comforter to Arella, with a hint that they could perhaps become more than friends.  We also saw the return of an old friend: Aqualad had been found by Star Labs.  He wasn’t dead but he was comatose.  On top of all that, Wolfman, Grummett and guest artist Paris Cullins added a new wrinkle.  As loudly proclaimed on the cover, a new team had joined the hunt for the Titans.  Over the course of the story, we met a shapeshifter, a vampire and Terra. 

            This is the point at which “The Titans Hunt” really went off the rails.  It’s not automatically a bad idea to introduce a new team at this point in the story.  But we are 9 issues into an epic and any new team should help drive us towards the climax, not slow us down.  Unfortunately, Wolfman and company opted for the latter.  Annual #7 was a double-whammy; it was both a crossover tie-in and an origin story.  The annual was allegedly part of Armageddon 2001, the future-set crossover in which DC’s heroes fought Monarch, but Monarch was only briefly mentioned before the futuristic Titans fought Lord Chaos instead.  We did get to meet these new Titans and see them in action.  That should have helpfully clarified their powers.  However, one of the teammates was a disembodied voice who spoke to them through wrist receivers.  It made for confusing conversations and I wasn’t always sure who was talking to who (though a similar concept worked well for Marvel’s Exiles a few years later).  The art was also a major letdown.  With multiple artists contributing to the annual, the story felt slapped together. 

             The same problems plagued issue #80.  Several artists split duties.  Some tried to ape Grummett’s style- not always successfully- and some didn’t.  Issue #80 also continued the origin story for the future Teen Titans.  I guess DC couldn’t expect every fan to buy the annual but the result was fairly redundant.  It had the effect of slowing the story down, killing any momentum that “the Hunt” had established. 

            These problems were amplified in issue #81.  It was a tie-in to yet another crossover, War of the Gods.  At least we discovered who kidnapped Donna Troy back in issue #78.  She wasn’t taken by one of their foes.  Pariah conscripted her for an army of heroes.  It made sense in terms of her character and the crossover- she was connected to the Greek gods after all.  But it was a poor storytelling choice for The New Titans.  Donna had just returned only to disappear again.  Story-wise, New Titans felt like it was going in circles.

            By the end of 1991, “The Titans Hunt” had lost all of its early promise and momentum.  Tom Grummett’s frequent absences didn’t help.  He had become a really great artist but 3 straight issues (4 counting the annual) had been drawn by guests and the quality of the title suffered. 

            In 1992, Wolfman and company finally got around to telling the third and final act of “The Titans Hunt.”  (I’m breaking with my self-imposed pattern and including the first part of 1992 so that I can deal with “The Hunt” as a whole.)  The cover to the January issue was promising, though we’d seen promising before.  Grummett was back.  Nightwing was back.  The focus was back on the Wildebeests.  And the cover promised that secrets would be revealed.  It was a good start.  The issue was good as well.  As promised, Nightwing met the original Wildebeest in a dungeon and learned how Jericho had taken over.  Donna Troy returned.  With a bit of detective work, she and Deathstroke were able to locate Jericho’s new headquarters.  Finally, the newer, stronger team of Titans was ready to go after Jericho.  Wolfman even ended the issue with a good twist.  The straightforward assault wasn’t so straightforward and the Titans found themselves travelling to the dimension of Azarath. 

            The battle against Jericho lasted an entire issue.  There were more revelations- Jericho’s spectral form came from the combined souls of Trigon and Azarath.  And there were more reversals- the Titans were defeated and tied up.  Finally, Deathstroke escaped and stabbed his own son.  It was a second great cliffhanger ending in a row (#82 and 83) but it took too long to get there.  The battle seemed drawn out, especially considering that the story had dragged on for over a year. 

            Jericho was defeated yet several Titans were still under the influence of his spectral power, namely Changeling, Raven and Starfire.  The Titans had to fight their own before they could free them from the evil influence.  During this stage of the battle, the allies discovered that Phantasm was actually Danny Chase in disguise.  He used his telekinetic powers to simulate a ghost-like form.  Credit where credit is due- that was a great twist.  As much as I had once despised Danny Chase, he had become a useful and even interesting character over the past two years.  It helped that he used his powers creatively, instead of relying on his contacts.  And it helped that he was there to help, instead of bragging about how he was so much better than the rest of the Titans.  He’ll never be one of my favorite characters- that well was poisoned long ago- but Wolfman showed that even dreadful characters can be used in interesting ways.  

            While this was going on, Raven stole the spectral powers from Changeling and Starfire in order to augment her own.  Everyone realized that Raven was now the real threat.  Arella and Danny joined together to defeat her, at the cost of their own lives.  The Titans quickly fled back to earth, but in another nice twist, a new Phantasm emerged from the wreckage, presumably made up of the souls of Arella, Danny and Azarath.

            Finally, issue #85 served as an epilogue to the 16-month “Titans Hunt.”  16 months isn’t necessarily too long for a story, but it was for this one.  The false finishes, the crossover interruptions and the other digressions made “The Hunt” feel long.  But it was over at last and Wolfman and Grummett gave it a good farewell.  They showed the funerals for Danny and Joe (Jericho).  They showed reunions with other Titans who had fallen along the way.  Changeling met the new, inert Cyborg in a heartbreaking scene.  The Titans asked Aquaman to take care of the comatose Aqualad.  And Phantasm presented the Titans with a baby Wildebeest, the by-product of their cloning facilities.  There was even a bit of tension as the Titans argue with councilwoman Alderman about the damages that their battles had incurred. 

            By the end of “The Hunt,” Wolfman had cleared the decks for a brand-new team of Titans.  It was an arguably necessary move.  A fresh team, combined of old favorites and new characters, would have a chance to chart a new future without always being compared to the great Titans stories of the past.  Indeed, Pantha, Phantasm and Red Star were welcome new additions at this point, joining Changeling, Donna Troy, Nightwing and Starfire to create a potentially solid line-up.  But it had taken a long time to get there.  And a number of other characters were made unusable along the way, either through death or incapacitation.  “The Hunt” started with the hopeful promise of a grand epic and ended with the hopeful promise of a new team, but along the way it became a muddled, plodding affair. 

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I thought that the "What the Heck" solution to the Wildebeest mystery was consistent with the solutions to every other mystery Wolfman had set up in the Titans, like the secret leader of the HIVE being some blonde ditz we'd never seen before, and "Who Is Donna Troy?" failing to produce a singly living person who shared genetic material with Donna.

I did like the clever bit with Phantasm, tho, and agree with your observations about him/Danny Chase. Who knew?

Excellent recap Chris.  I had the same reaction to Jericho being revealed as the leader of the Wildebeests as you did.  Up to that point, I enjoyed the story, but it fell apart at that point, and limped along for several more issues.  I dropped the book around issue 80 or so.

I really liked the Phantasm twist, too, Chris -- but man, did I hate what had been done to Jericho. It wasn't long after Titans Hunt that I dropped the book.

You made the right call, John.  (And you too, Rob.)  I felt that the story somewhat recovered with a decent third act but by that point most of the damage had already been done to Jericho and Cyborg.  As I noted in the article, they were both rendered unusable for years.  And it isn't getting better from here.  While re-reading some of the comics for 1992, I leaned over to anacoqui and said, "Why am I doing this to myself?"  There are some okay stories but they're heavily outnumbered by awful ones, at least until the inevitable relaunches.  I'm still planning future articles but they'll talk on more of a trainwreck fascination feel. 

John Dunbar (the mod of maple) said:

Excellent recap Chris.  I had the same reaction to Jericho being revealed as the leader of the Wildebeests as you did.  Up to that point, I enjoyed the story, but it fell apart at that point, and limped along for several more issues.  I dropped the book around issue 80 or so.

I remember reading two 1991 annuals that year and thinking I had just put down the best comic book I'd read in a long time. One was L.E.G.I.O.N. '91 Annual, and the other was the New Titans Annual.

I loved the new characters, I remember not quite being able to figure out who Prester John was, but being intrigued. I liked the sense of urgency to this comic. It's too bad the Team Titans really became a whole lot of nothing, because I would read the modern-day adventures of Kilowat, Redwing, and Nightrider in a heartbeat. I still remember those names 24 years later (mild heart attack at realizing how long it's been).

Somehow I missed this column until today.  The general feelings seem to be very much in tune with mine own.

It may be worth mentioning the change of editors around and after Hunt.  It seems to me that much of the book's fortunes from this year to its eventual cancellation was in some sense tied or at least informed by its editors.  Wolfman seems to agree, from what I have read.

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