The Teen Titans Project, Part XVI: 

Total Chaos (1992)

 

I’ll be honest, I prefer writing about comics I like. It’s much more enjoyable. But it’s important, every once in a while, to write about comics I don’t like. For one thing, it shows that I’m at least a little bit discriminating. I don’t like everything! For another, it can be instructive to examine what went wrong and, potentially, why. The New Titans were in the midst of a dreadful slump in the early ‘90s. Even that’s being too kind. They were dreadful. They were a train wreck. It seemed like every year marked a new low.  I can only say that I’m glad I read most of these comic books years after the fact by way of bargain bin purchases. 

1992 started out decently enough. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist Tom Grummett finally wrapped up the 16-month long "Titans Hunt," as covered in the previous article. The conclusion was exciting and gave way to a brand new line-up, although it left a number of characters virtually unusable. 

Over the summer months (issues 86-89, May-August), Wolfman set out establishing the identity of this new line-up and examining their relationships. He also laid the groundwork for future stories. In a way, the summer of ’92 harkened back to the Titans’ glory days. Wolfman employed the A-B-C plot structure with a primary story and numerous subplots, and he focused on characterization and personality.  However, for a number of reasons, these new Titans didn’t match the glorious heights or probing depths of earlier eras. 

The New Titans’ core line-up consisted of Nightwing, Starfire, Troia, Changeling, Cyborg, Red Star and Pantha.  However, Cyborg had sustained significant damage during the “Titans Hunt” and was now a mindless, remote-controlled robot. Baby Wildebeest, now in the team’s custody, and Steve Dayton, hosting the team since Titans Tower had been destroyed, augmented the cast. There was also a question as to whether Deathstroke would stay with the team and even lead it.  It was a reasonable question at the time.  Nightwing had recently abandoned his duties to work with Batman and train the new Robin while Deathstroke played a primary role in creating a new team of Titans and rescuing the old one. 

Nightwing and Deathstroke fought it out in issue #86. The cover billed it as a fight for dominance, er, leadership but in the story the fight was more about blame and guilt over Jericho’s death. At the end of the fight Deathstroke walked away, content to leave the Titans to their own devices and resume his solo adventures. Issue #86 also featured two potential threats. It introduced Lord Chaos, the owner of a multi-million dollar company and the adult son of Donna Troy, who planned to kill his own mother. No, it doesn’t really make sense. Plus, the issue kept track of the Team Titans, introduced during “The Hunt,” by showing Mirage spying on Nightwing and the new Terra confronting Changeling. I’m not a fan of Team Titans, but Wolfman at least did a good job of enticing the reader with mysterious hints at this stage in the game. The art on the other hand was awful. Tom Grummett was still great but he was being pulled away more and more for other duties (he was becoming a regular on the Superman titles on this time). That meant that this issue featured three guest artists with widely disparate styles. It made for a disjointed, inconsistent issue. Even Kevin Maguire’s pages lacked their usual panache.

Over the next three issues, each of the characters dealt with separate issues and concerns.  Donna Troy had a medical scare that turned out to be an accelerated pregnancy.  Her storyline gave good exposure to supporting characters Sarah Charles as the wise doctor and Terry Long as the compassionate husband. I know that a lot of fans don’t like Terry but I always thought he was a good husband for Donna. He cared for her deeply and gave her everything he could, as this storyline clearly demonstrated. This story also created tension as both the readers and the futuristic Team Titans knew that Donna’s child would be the psychotic Lord Chaos.

Red Star and Changeling, aka Leonid and Gar, were primarily caught up in dealing with Cyborg.  Leonid felt responsible for Cyborg since Victor had been rebuilt by Russian scientists. He took time to test, train and maintain his old ally. Gar mostly mourned the loss of his friend. Gar’s composure was also disturbed by the recurring appearances of Terra, reminding him of previous loss and betrayal.    

Meanwhile, Nightwing and Starfire spent most of their time dating, though that had a few complications as well. To protect his secret identity, Dick Grayson dated Kory in disguise. The shape-shifter Mirage took advantage of the situation to seduce Dick as Starfire. I understand that happy couples are sometimes considered boring so it’s necessary for a writer to throw a monkey wrench into the relationship every once in a while. But I don’t understand why Dick was so blasé about it. He was betrayed as much as Starfire but he barely seems bothered by it. 

Lastly, Pantha gained a new role as Baby Wildebeest’s primary caretaker and mother figure. It was a ripe situation for humor and several covers reflected that. And yet, I think it kind of backfired on Pantha as a character. I wasn’t predisposed to dislike Pantha, like other fans who objected to the presence of a feral Wolverine-type on every team. In fact, I welcomed her dark humor, especially since Gar was too distraught about Victor and Terra to be his usual jovial self. I think she could have made for a good mother figure, demonstrating a different side of her character to balance out her viciousness. But I also think this storyline set a bad habit for the character of doing something despite her complaints and hostile remarks. Pantha was all snarl, and no bite. She could have been the most interesting new Titan since Jericho (although that’s not a high bar considering the others were Danny Chase and Kole).  Instead, she was a blusterer who mostly sat on the sidelines.

I appreciate the humor and the attempts at characterization in these summer issues. They’re certainly better than the epics that surrounded them. Yet, they also demonstrate the huge role the artist plays in characterization. The rotating team of mostly sub-par artists simply couldn’t convey the depth of emotion that might have made these stories great. 

For the final third of 1992, The New Titans engaged in two major crossovers. Crossovers had been a contributing factor to the failure of “The Hunt” in 1991 and they would further diminish the Titans in 1992. The annual was part of the “Eclipso: The Darkness Within” story and it was mostly harmless as far as the main title was concerned. It even helped a little by giving extra face time to Councilwoman Elizabeth Alderman who had been trying to shut down the Titans since “The Hunt” and Captain Hall who had been trying to protect them. It was a pretty standard story with the Titans being turned evil one at the time, and the art was once again poor but it was at least innocuous. Unfortunately, the story completely changed midway through, abandoning the rest of the Titans to focus on Deathstroke, Nightwing and the new Vigilante. I suppose it helped build a bridge to the Deathstroke annual but it came at the expense of a coherent story in this issue.

With the annual out of the way, the Titans embarked on their first all-Titans crossover. The Titans had often been compared to the X-Men in the early ‘80s as formerly failed team titles that had been resurrected to critical acclaim and monumental sales. Since then, the Uncanny X-Men had grown into a franchise and DC clearly had plans to do the same with the Titans. Unfortunately for DC, there were a few key differences. The X-Men launched new titles like X-Factor and Excalibur when they were still in their prime (Excalibur came on the heels of the acclaimed “Morlock Mutant Massacre” crossover) while the Titans’ best days were quite clearly in the past. Marvel made sure to use top talent on new titles (John Buscema on Wolverine, Alan Davis on Excalibur) while DC opted for unknowns and journeymen. Phil Jimenez would become a great artist someday but he was a raw newcomer when he was handed the artistic reins on Team Titans.  Plus, Marvel wisely used previously existing and beloved characters for most of their spin-offs (with the exception of New Mutants) while DC ignored the possibilities inherent in a Titans West series for the riskier proposition of new Titans from the future. 

“Total Chaos” was the grand epic that was supposed to turn the Titans into a franchise.  It crossed over from the main New Titans title to the year-old Deathstroke title to the completely new Team Titans title. The title was all too apt. It was meant to refer to Lord Chaos, Donna Troy’s adult son from the future and the Team Titans’ ultimate nemesis. But it could have just as easily described the plot.  The team would stand around before being attacked and then stand around some more before being attacked again.

The crossover was also manipulative in the worst way. The Deathstroke issues were supposed to be full, essential parts of the story but they were usually tangential except for a scene or two. If you were reading Deathstroke for the crossover, you were disappointed to get so little relevant material. I suppose that if you were reading Deathstroke for Deathstroke, you were annoyed at getting otherwise irrelevant scenes from another title. Team Titans was even worse, though in a different way. Variant covers had been a proven commodity for several years. Team Titans took it a step further with variant interiors. The first issue had five versions, each depicting the origin for one of five different Teamers.  But that was only half the issue. The second half connected to the present day as part of the “Total Chaos” crossover. If you bought all five, you bought the same story five times.  But if you only bought one, you missed out on the origins for four of the characters. I opted for the latter and I’m glad I did. Since DC couldn’t count on readers buying all five variants, the origins were inconsequential to the larger story. Killowat’s backstory was the only one referenced in subsequent issues. It was a bad storytelling decision and a bad marketing decision -- those first issues are disposable, not collectible.  

The story was poorly told as well.  It should have been tighter than the drawn-out “Hunt,” but it was once again needlessly padded. The middle Deathstroke issue spent most of its time on a flashback in the jungles of Southeast Asia that had little to do with the current Deathstroke story and nothing to do with the crossover. The only positive is that it introduced Deathstroke’s daughter, Rose Wilson, who would become an interesting character several years later in the hands of a different writer. I can’t even begin to enumerate all of the problems with “Total Chaos.”  Pantha’s irrelevance continued as she continued to make threats without carrying them out. Nightwing’s obliviousness increased as he brought Mirage into the regular Titans while alienating the rest of the Teamers. And Lord Chaos never became more than a scenery-chewing Evil villain with a capital E. He had no personality, no motivation, no interesting feature. There were a few interesting developments as Baby Wildebeest transformed into a hulking ‘Beest when angry and Donna Troy was transformed into a 50-foot goddess. Plus, it was great to get consistent art for a change. Tom Grummett drew more than he had in months and Kevin Maguire helped get the Team Titans off the ground. But those little bits weren’t enough to make up for the character-less, chaotic mess of the crossover.  

The New Titans had one last story to tell in 1992. Technically, it was another crossover as Deathstroke was roped in again. I wouldn’t know. I skipped the Deathstroke issue after the “Total Chaos” tie-ins proved to be so inconsequential. For the past couple of years, the Titans had been fending off Councilwoman Alderman. The legal battle had left the Titans deeply in debt.  Left with no other resources, the Titans decided to license their image for anyone who was interested. There were would Titans toys, lunchboxes and cartoons. The story started in Titans: $ell-Out special and concluded in New Titans #93. Wolfman and company caricatured the worst excesses of commercialization and it was a ton of fun. The satirical cartoon doesn’t hold up to multiple readings but then again, it wasn’t meant to. The “Titans Sell Out” story demonstrated that these new Titans were at their best when they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They’d never really tried to be a humorous title before but it worked. Unfortunately, humor was the only thing that worked in an otherwise abysmal 1992.

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I was cranky enough when the series was at its peak of quality, but now we're getting into the era when there's just no sport in snarking about it, so I'm reduced to saying nice things about Danny Chase & Pantha...well, nice-ish.

That's about right. 

Wandering Sensei: Moderator Man said:

The first comic book I ever (properly) read was New Titans #55...

I get the feeling that I came into comics right after the Titans had been really good.

Uh, yeah.  It's amazing that every time you think the Titans hit rock bottom, they prove you wrong by getting even worse.  I'm stalled out in the middle of 1993 though I'll probably power through because I want to get to the revivals- some of which were pretty good. 

Also, I didn't read all of these as they came out.  I bought a lot of these years after the fact through back issue discount bins.  Some of them still have the 50 cent sticker on them.  If I had been reading along in 1992-93, I would have definitely dumped the Titans (I wasn't because I had left for college and mostly dropped out of comics). 

Luis Olavo de Moura Dantas said:

Alas, we are not even close to the worst yet.  Ifear many people learned not to be strict completists with New Titans from 1991-on.

I would not blame Chris Fluit if he decided to stop before reaching 1995-1996.  It is just about three years more, but it feels like so much more.  It was hurtful.

Like you, I remember not disliking Pantha as much as nearly everyone else...even considering the horrible stories she was in. I was sorry to see her head go bouncing along in Infinite Crisis. On the plus side, everything you write in the series from here until the revivals will be totally new to me!

I got the Redwing issue. What was the deal again with her turning into a bird monster? If I'd known that was going to happen I would have passed on that title.

If it was a Redwing-centered tale, it was most likely in Team Titans, not the main title.  Terra and Mirage got some plots in New Titans, but other than during the Total Chaos crossover the others were basically absent in the main book.  

Even Donna and Terry were seen a lot less while on loan to Team Titans.

I have yet to see even a single person claim that he or she misses the Team Titans book, Ron.  Or even the team itself.  Even most of the members are safely in the "forgettable" category.  IIRC not even Marv Wolfman, who spent quite a lot of his time and effort conceiving and writing the characters, truly misses them.

Their ultimate fate (except for Mirage and Terra's) was to no one's surprise and widely regarded as a mercy kill.  What bugs me is that despite that the book was actually fairly connected with others, borrowing plots from both New Titans and Darkstars.  I must assume that bothered quite a few Darkstar readers.

That is also one of many reasons why the last two or three years of New Titans are so painful.  They were not only lacking in artistic merit and narrative direction, but also on basic consideration for other books, as well as in receiving respected from other books by their turn.  They actually went out of their way to entangle themselves in the continuity of Damage and Deathstroke, and sometimes vice-versa.  For a while there it was difficult to even imagine what they were hoping for.  

Damage leaving the team seemed almost like meta-commentary.  It was a rare case of a new and arguably failed character actually improving his chances by _leaving_ a well-known team that he had joined just recently.  At that point, being seen in association with the New Titans must have hurt his reputation with readers.

I wish I were exagerating.

This is kind of like talking about the Defenders after all the founders left in #125. The mess they called the New Defenders crawled on for two years getting worse and worse until Marvel finally gave it a mercy killing.

Apples and Oranges, I think.

The New Defenders from #125-152 were less than stellar, particularly when it comes to the art.  But the plot had some interesting ideas and showed a clear sense of purpose, if nothing else.  It was not painful to read, and it certainly did not come anywhere close to the levels of rejection and internal conflict that one learns of from the evidence about New Titans from 1991 or so onwards.  There are even some fans of that period of Defenders, while I just don't recall any fans of the 1992-1995 Titans.

In a way I think those were in fact opposite, even symetrical situations.  Pre-#125 Defenders had been suffering from bad plots and general aimlessness for quite a few years, and while the market situation failed to support the New Defenders, it was clearly better written than the confused mess that preceded it and ended up relying on a bit of nostalgic attachment to the abstract concepts of the characters themselves ("Hey, Doctor Strange and the Hulk are both in this story!").

The last three or four years of the New Titans are a far better comparison to the period _before_ Defenders #125, IMO.  Except that there was a (now) fairly public conflict between Marv Wolfman and DC at the time, or at least between Marv and at least one of his editors.  

I get the sense that it was a very difficult time for all people involved.  DC probably lacked either the enthusiasm or the actual means to attempt to replace Wolfman on the New Titans - it is not like there were a lot of better Titans proposals since even now, over twenty years later - and Marv Wolfman has made it plenty clear that he was feeling miserable writing the book at that time (and boy, does it show in the stories themselves.  Does it ever).  I think it was much like the Clone Saga, in that things grew so incredibly messy that for a while people just kept hoping that some improvement would be just around the corner.  In both cases, it seems to me that the sheer size and ambition of the employers themselves worked to their disadvantages.  Their events worked against those specific books, but their editorial policies would refuse to accept that, eventually leading to the need for an attempt at a clear slate by cancelling and then rebooting the books.


Ron M. said:

This is kind of like talking about the Defenders after all the founders left in #125. The mess they called the New Defenders crawled on for two years getting worse and worse until Marvel finally gave it a mercy killing.

Guess that's what makes horse races because I'm seeing apples and apples.

Actually I found every comic in 1994-95 horrible. I'd be surprised if anyone thought 1995 was their favorite year. But then I've heard one writer (forget his name) loves the Crossing and wants to continue that storyline. So anything no matter how bad must have some fans somewhere.

Yeah, the mid-1990s were simply dreadful for most comics.  Nightmarish, actually.

There were some great comics in the 90s -- Astro City, Hitman, Sandman, Preacher, Starman, Flash, the Return of Superman, Bone -- but a lot of old favorites sure seemed to lose their way. 

The Titans, though, were symptomatic of the trends DC & Marvel were chasing -- trying to play the Image game rather than focusing on their own strengths. It led to comics like these, all sizzle and horrible steak.

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