The Teen Titans Project Part XVII (1993): The Dark Age

By Chris FluitColumnistI genuinely dislike the term “The Dark Age” when it’s used to describe the comics of the early ‘90s.  It’s unnecessarily judgmental, most often used by older fans to complain about artistic trends that were moving away from them, kind of like the adults who complained at the time about the noisiness of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  It’s also inaccurate, considering the quality of certain titles that debuted during that time like Static (1993) and Starman (1994).  I prefer the Copper Age or, even better, the Chromium Age, which is descriptive without being judgmental. 

However, I’m willing to relent and withdraw my protestations when it comes to the New Titans.  For the Titans, it truly was a Dark Age.  They hit rock bottom artistically and creatively in 1993 and ’94.  Unfortunately, the Dark Age appellation is entirely accurate.  The New Titans embarked on darker storylines with demonic possession, personal tragedy and a fractured team.  Marv Wolfman even titled one of the key stories of 1993 “The Darkening.”  The art took a similar turn to the black, with heavy inks, rough lines and chaotic layouts. 

The year began with “Cyberkill,” a three-part story by guest creators Louise Simonson and Phil Jimenez (issues #94-96).  There was a time when a guest writer signaled a significant drop in quality as no one could write the Titans as well as Wolfman.  But that time was long past.  Barbara and Karl Kesel’s two-part tale was one of the better stories of 1990, and Louise Simonson repaired a storyline left over from “Total Chaos” in her arc.  To me, it was a sign that maybe it was time for Wolfman to move on to something else. 

The main story focused on Red Star and Cyborg as Red Star escorted Cyborg back to Russia for further repairs.  Theoretically, Cyborg was a major character in 1993.  He was a key figure in three stories, “Cyberkill,” “The Darkening” and “Terminus,” as well as a guest star in two issues of Showcase.  But, truthfully, Cyborg was more of a McGuffin.  He was moved around, remote controlled, fought over and cried over but, for all of that, he was inert.  “Cyberkill” at least gave Red Star a chance to shine, helping him become a focal figure as one of the newer Titans.  

The sub-plot was more interesting.  I was upset that Nightwing had been so cavalier about Mirage’s betrayal in posing as Starfire to seduce him.  Louise Simonson partially rectified the situation by having Nightwing turn the tables.  He used Dick Grayson’s reputation as a playboy to make it look like Starfire was two-timing Nightwing.  He then tricked Mirage into appearing as Nightwing while he was in public as Dick.  As a result, Mirage was frozen out of the love triangle, while Dick and Kory were finally able to date openly.  It was a positive step for their relationship.  It’s too bad it didn’t last long. 

Louise Simonson may have been a temporary improvement as writer, but Phil Jimenez wasn’t quite ready to step into Tom Grummett’s shoes as artist.  Jimenez was clearly influenced by George Perez and a natural fit for the Titans.  However, his figures were sometimes posed awkwardly as if he didn’t know how to fit every limb into a panel.  Jimenez would become a superstar before too long, but his first foray on the Titans was a little stiff. 

Wolfman and Grummett returned for the second major story of 1993, “The Darkening” (#97-100).  In a way, “The Darkening” felt like the classic Titans with multiple storylines weaving in and out.  In one story, Gar tried to succeed where Red Star had failed by stealing Steve Dayton’s old Mento helmet to cure Cyborg.  In another, Pantha discovered that the Wildebeests had used Dayton technology to transform her, adding to her confusion, anger and suspicion. 

In a third, Speedy received a weapons upgrade, changed his name to Arsenal, and was installed as the new Titans leader by the government.  Speedy had been an on-again, off-again Titan since 1989 (or 1966, if you prefer).  I liked the upgrade and the new name.  Dick, Wally and Donna had become Nightwing, The Flash and Troia respectively, and it was nice to see another former Teen Titan grow into adulthood and adopt a new identity.  I was on the verge of adulthood myself (I finished my freshman year of college in 1993) and Roy’s transition to Arsenal resonated with me.  However, his new costume looked too much like Hawkeye.  It would take several tries before he landed on the right one. 

In a fourth storyline, Dick and Kory’s relationship hit another bumpy patch.  Kory was still mad about Mirage’s interference and about Mirage posing as her in Playboy.  It seemed like a step backward after the positive direction of the Simonson story.  It also seemed out of character for Starfire to be so upset about the centerfold, as she’d always been very carefree concerning nudity in the past.  It seemed like Wolfman was forcing conflict onto the relationship, rather than allowing it to arise naturally.  Dick decided to end the conflict by proposing to Kory.  It was a bad decision, and I’m glad that several characters commented on it.  If Dick had proposed at the end of the Simonson story it would have made sense.  Their relationship had rebounded, they were free to date openly, and they could have gotten married.  But, after the backward steps of “The Darkening,” it was a bad move.  They were getting married for the wrong reasons, and they knew it. 

The fifth storyline featured Raven.  She hadn’t died at the end of “The Hunt” as the Titans believed.  However, her actual fate was arguably worse than death.  She had finally succumbed to her father’s demonic influence.  Now, she was building a dark army by corrupting others with her father’s demon seeds.  She attacked the Titans’ political nemesis, Elizabeth Alderman.  Over in Team Titans, she also corrupted Deathwing, the alternate future version of Nightwing.  Finally, she attacked Dick and Kory’s wedding, disrupting the ceremony and planting a demon seed in Starfire.  Yeah, that’s pretty dark.  It was certainly dramatic- the kind of big event you’d expect in a 10oth issue -- but it was also a bad idea.  Wolfman once described working on Spider-Man as playing in somebody else’s sandbox -- you can do what you want as long as you leave the toys for the next person.  In Titans #100, the toys got broke.  It’s almost impossible Raven after she attacks her best friend’s wedding.  Plus, Dick and Kory’s relationship would never fully recover.  New Titans had struggled in mediocrity (or worse) for several years but this issue truly marked the end.

It was also the end for Tom Grummett.  Grummett had grown into a great artist during his time on New Titans and he was now in high demand.  For a while, he tried to split his time between the Titans and Superman.  After issue #100, he would depart for good to Superman, Superboy and Robin.  It was a good career move for Grummett, but also a sign of how far the Titans had fallen.  They were no longer a destination title for top artists. 

Oddly, the Titans didn’t become a training ground for promising newcomers either.  After his first arc on New Titans, Phil Jimenez was moved over to Team Titans.  He would hone his craft on the secondary Titans title, before he too graduated to Robin.  Jimenez would be replaced on Team Titans in 1994 by newcomers Terry and Rachel Dodson.  The Dodsons weren’t great yet, but their crisp, round style was similar to Grummett.  It’s all hindsight of course, but I can’t help but imagine what the Titans would have been like if they had been the title to discover and develop hot young talent. 

Since I’m talking about art, this is also a good time to talk about fashion.  George Perez was in tune with early ‘80s fashions when The New Teen Titans began, drawing perms, bobs, vests and berets.  It’s one of the things that made the Titans feel fresh and new at the time.  And, after all these years, that sense of fashion is still an asset.  It helps create a sense of setting for those early issues of Titans, kind of like watching American Hustle.  Tom Grummett also embraced fashion trends, infamously giving long hair to Nightwing, Changeling and Superman.  It was admittedly vogue at the time but it doesn’t hold up.  Gar’s mullet and Dick’s ponytail look really bad in retrospect.  It seemed natural for Grummett, but it’s especially noticeable when guest artists like Phil Jimenez try to make it work.

 Around the same time as the wedding, the New Titans starred in an annual as part of the Bloodlines event.  In a way, Bloodlines marked a transition from the crossover annuals of recent vintage to the theme annuals of the later ‘90s.  It had an overarching story like Armageddon 2001 and Eclipso: The Darkness Within, but each annual stood on its own like Elseworlds and Year One.  That was a positive development.  Unfortunately, the concept driving Bloodlines was the introduction of a new character in every title.  Bloodlines was clearly a response to the increasing popularity of new characters at new companies like Image, Valiant, Malibu, Dark Horse and Milestone.  DC was trying to take back momentum with their own slate of new characters (Marvel introduced new characters in all of their 1993 annuals as well).  It didn’t really work.  Few of the new characters had an impact.  Even those given ongoing titles or mini-series were lost in the flood.  It’s too bad.  Some of the characters were interesting and might have succeeded without the baggage of a line-wide crossover introduction.  As for New Titans, they met Anima, a teenager with the ability to summon monster avatars.  It was a bad story with bad art, and it didn’t leave me with much interest in Anima at the time.

After the wedding, New Titans took an even darker turn.  Titans’ fans ended up referring to the next year as the Dark Jaaska period after artist Bill Jaaska.  Jaaska asked for lots of black backgrounds and used heavy lines that demanded heavy black inks no matter who was serving as inker (seven different inkers rotated through Jaaska’s seven issues, including Jaaska himself).  You can see a John Romita Jr. influence in Jaaska’s work, especially in his facial structures and cheekbones, but lacking Romita’s impression of strength and sense of design.  Jaaska also used a lot of close-ups, so that his scenes often felt crowded.  He regularly ignored panel borders, but while artists did so in a way that looked explosive, Jaaska’s layouts seemed chaotic.  His close-up panels cut down on room for the story and his heavy lines reduced the range of characterization. 

As to the story, Nightwing and Arsenal fought over leadership, Starfire fought to expel her demonic seed of Trigon, and Changeling fought inner demons unleashed by the Mento helmet only to discover that he enjoyed them.  It was a dark period in writing tone as well as artistic style, lacking humor, friendship, romance and all of the elements that typically balance out the violence and tension of the superhero life.  For my money, the period from 1993 to ’94 is the absolute worst in the long history of the Titans. 

So who’s to blame?  I’m not as interested in pointing fingers as I am in diagnosing the problem.  I think the fundamental problem was that DC didn’t understand what made Image successful.  They were like my parents complaining about rap music.  They were so focused on what, in their mind, was wrong - they’re not singing- that they couldn’t see what was good about it- rhythm, word play, rhyme, etc.  Unlike my parents, DC couldn’t simply ignore the new trends.  They had to compete with them.  So DC tried to imitate Image without really understanding what made it successful.  They were like Pat Boone trying his hand at heavy metal.  It simply didn’t work.  The New Titans imitated all of the bad aspects of the Image movement without replicating any of their good features.  And yes, there were good features to Image- energy, explosiveness, novelty, discovery and so on.  I like Rob Liefeld but that doesn’t mean I want to see a Rob Liefeld rip-off on New Titans

There’s one last story to cover for 1993.  The four-part “Terminus” epic took place in December ’93 and January ’94.  It was supposed to be a big event deciding the final fate of Cyborg with issues coming out every other week.  But it’s pretty much a mess.  Guest artists Nick Napolitano and Mark Tenney weren’t much better than Bill Jaaska (that’s another part of the Image effect- the older companies were stretched very thin looking for artists).  They had trouble conveying where scenes were taking place.  Whether the characters were in STAR Labs, inside the cyberspace of Cyborg’s mind or on the alien Technis spaceship, the backgrounds all looked the same.  It was kind of confusing, and I was never sure where anyone was.  It was also a problem that the artists couldn’t agree on how to draw Prester Jon, guest-starring from Team Titans.  Each artist drew him completely differently- one as an energy creature, another as a ball-capped slacker, a third as a standard superhero.  The shape shifting could have worked as a story choice since Jon was a cybernetic being who determined his own appearance but it was never addressed as such.  Instead, the reader was left to guess what Jon looked like now until some other character addressed him by name. 

After three separate adventures dedicated to the problem, the Titans were finally able to restore Cyborg to sentience.  However, Vic decided to leave Earth with Technis.  Vic felt like he fit in better with the cybernetic creatures and that he could learn from them.  There’s a rule in theatre, and presumably in writing comics, that you should give every character a good exit.  Wolfman tried to give Vic a good exit, but it was a badly muddled story that followed too many previous failed attempts. 

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I was still hanging on at this point of The Titans era. I definitely remember those covers. I hated what they did to Cyborg, and his leaving left me scratching my head.

Totally, agree about what this did to the Nightwing/Starfire relationship. It never did recover.

While I'll agree most of the hair was terrible. I never did like mullets, I actually dug Nightwing's pony tail. To each their own I guess.

I really liked Speedy becoming Arsenal. One of my favorite comic book developments of the 90s. Heh, I forgot how much he did look like Hawkeye in the beginning.

Entertaining recap, Chris.  Those comics sound awful.

99's cover is puzzling.  It is both too reminescent of Alpha Flight #12, and a bit too obviously an exageration.  It is even at odds with its own cover text!

After the Bronze Age came the Iron Age, a time of ugliness and violence. Sounds like a good description of those times continuing up through today.

 

One interesting trend of the time is tendency towards inflated, ill-defined powers and secondary origins.  Bodily modifications, too.  Wasn't this about the time in real life when piercings became more widespread?



Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) said:

While I'll agree most of the hair was terrible. I never did like mullets, I actually dug Nightwing's pony tail. To each their own I guess.

I didn't mind the ponytail depending on the artist.  I thought that Grummett "made it work" (to borrow Tim Gunn's favorite phrase).  But I didn't think it looked good when Phil Jimenez drew it which is why I mentioned it.

I really liked Speedy becoming Arsenal. One of my favorite comic book developments of the 90s. Heh, I forgot how much he did look like Hawkeye in the beginning.

I agree with you agreeing with me.  I liked how each of the Titans took on a new identity in turn.  It took Arsenal a little while to settle on a good look, but the overall move was a positive one. 

Thanks for the compliment, John.  I aimed for more of an overview than issue-by-issue recap this time around.  I'm glad it worked. 

John Dunbar (the mod of maple) said:

Entertaining recap, Chris.  Those comics sound awful.

The Iron Age is a good suggestion.  I'd never heard that one before. 

Ron M. said:

After the Bronze Age came the Iron Age, a time of ugliness and violence. Sounds like a good description of those times continuing up through today.

 

That may have been a general trend but it wasn't a part of the regular Titans at the time.  Red Star got a power upgrade but it was still pretty clear what he could and couldn't do.  I do think that was a problem with Prester Jon.  He got a virtual body while inside Cyborg.  Then, he was somehow able to become tangible after leaving Cyborg.  By the time he returned to Team Titans, he could be pretty much anything.  I didn't care for Prester Jon as a walkie-talkie bracelet but I didn't care for him as a virtual reality Mr. Fantastic either. 


Luis Olavo de Moura Dantas said:

One interesting trend of the time is tendency towards inflated, ill-defined powers and secondary origins.  Bodily modifications, too.  Wasn't this about the time in real life when piercings became more widespread?

I'll let Dennis DeYoung express my gratitude for your recap:

"Thank you very much-o, Mr. Roboto, for doing the job nobody wants to!"

I think there's a tv/movie critic whose tagline is "We watch 'em so you don't have to." 

Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:

I'll let Dennis DeYoung express my gratitude for your recap:

"Thank you very much-o, Mr. Roboto, for doing the job nobody wants to!"

On the internet the Nostalgia Critic opens his reviews with "Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember 'em so you don't have to."

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