I confess that I wasn’t looking forward to writing this particular column. The first 8 months of 1994 were a continuation of the “Dark Jaaska” era I detested—and described in detail for the 1993 column. I’m not sure how many ways I can say I loathed it. Yet there are a few Titans things worth talking about in 1994, and not all of them are limited to the latter third of the year. But I’ll begin with the beginning.
The first story of the year focused on Starfire, who had been possessed by a demon seed back in issue #100. Issue 108’s title illustrates the series’ descent into darkness. Though Marv Wolfman titled the story inside as “Rebirth,” the cover proclaimed it as “An Exorcism of Innocence.” The focus wasn’t on hope; it was on darkness, demon possession and the loss of innocence. Bill Jaaska’s art reinforced the drab cheerlessness of the current title. He even drew Phantasm’s white mask in shadow so that it was covered with dark, ugly lines. The problem was magnified by a Tom Grummett-drawn Titans public service announcement for AIDS awareness. It’s a sharp contrast between Grummett’s clean style and Jaaska’s heavy use of black.
The exorcism story dragged on as well. It took two issues for Starfire to purge the demon seed (#108 and 109), making the story both dark and slow. One problem was that Wolfman’s writing style was relying more and more on exposition. Issue 109 included a long scene recounting Starfire’s past as a prisoner and a warrior. I understand the need for context—and for getting new readers up to date—but Jaaska’s muddy drawings were more confusing than enlightening. The exposition problem would plague New Titans through the end of the series.
The silver lining is that Wolfman was at least laying the foundation for future stories that wouldn’t necessarily be as bleak. A subplot showed Roy Harper, aka Arsenal, in discussion with Sarge Steel about the future of the Titans. Wolfman even dropped in a Supergirl cameo, hinting that she might join the team in the near future- something fans were clamoring for back in the letters page of the 1960s.
Starfire joined Arsenal and the other Titans for a three-part story in space (#110-112). Starfire lost her memory in the process of purging the demon seed but she and Titans were able to thwart a group of ecoterrorists who had captured a space station. The ecoterrorists had ugly costumes and bad names (ie. Teraizer). I’m not sure if Wolfman and Jaaska were trying to mock Image or imitate them.
At this point, the subplot was more important than the main story. The ecoterrorists were eminently forgettable but, in the background, Arsenal continued to negotiate with Sarge Steel. Arsenal brought in former Titans Flash and Aqualad for consultation, though both turned down the opportunity to rejoin the team. Arsenal also talked things over with Nightwing via video chat. The storyline established a new status quo for the Titans as a subsidiary of Checkmate but, more importantly, it showed Arsenal growing into his role as the leader of the Titans.
Actually, Arsenal’s character growth is one of more unnoticed, yet welcome, developments of 1994. It isn’t only that Arsenal took over as leader of the Titans. In retrospect, you can see that Arsenal was being groomed as a star. He had a solo story in Showcase ’94 #7—a slight piece written by a pre-fame Kurt Busiek. This would lead to a one-shot in ’96, a team-up with Batman in ’97 and finally a mini-series in ’98. Arsenal is finally becoming a title character this year with the upcoming Red Hood/Arsenal series but his journey began in 1994.
Issue #113 was another exposition-heavy story as Nightwing reflected on his life with Batman and the Teen Titans over the years. It’s hard to believe but Jaaska is even worse at drawing flashbacks than regular stories (I should really stop picking on Jaaska since I don’t have anything nice to say). I mentioned the importance of giving a character a good exit in my column for 1993. Although I didn’t care for the actual issue, I appreciate that Wolfman gave Nightwing a send-off. Nightwing was done with the Titans for now and on his way to becoming a solo star- he would star in a one-shot and a mini-series in 1995 before jumping into his own ongoing title in 1996.
Around this time, the New Titans starred in their 10th Annual. DC was developing themes for their annuals now rather than crossovers and 1994 introduced “Elseworlds”—alternate versions of familiar characters. The concept would become widely lauded, leading to some of DC’s most celebrated stories over the next decade (Kingdom Come, Gotham by Gaslight, Red Son, etc.). However, my recollection is that many of the original annuals failed to explore the full potential of the idea. This was certainly true of New Titans Annual #10. Wolfman put the Titans in a medieval sword and sorcery setting. He cast Raven as a dark sorcerer who had imprisoned the team and Phantasm as a good sorcerer who led the freed captives against her. It was pretty much the same story he was telling in the regular series in a different setting. It would have been much more interesting if Wolfman had pitted the team against each other or surprised us with a few heel turns or twists.
September marked the end of one era, making room for the start of another. It was about time. New Titans desperately needed a new approach. But, truthfully, it was probably too late already. The damage of the dark era had been done and a new line-up wouldn’t convince all the readers who had abandoned New Titans to come back.
I honestly enjoy the transition issues, though they don’t rise above the level of mediocrity. Wolfman does a good job of characterization. Each character has a different reason for leaving that makes sense for them. Plus, Wolfman does a good job conveying Arsenal’s growing despair as he worries that he’ll be the only Titan left. It also helps that the departure issue (#114) was given to artist Rik Mays. He had filled in a couple of times during the Jaaska era though his manga-influenced style was a jarring contrast with Jaaska’s darker approach. Mays’ lighter touch added a bit of humor and nicely balanced out the sadness of the story. I won’t pretend I’m a fan of Mays’ art—or most manga-derivatives—as his figures look like they’re made of plasticine, but it was a step up.
The remaining Titans then traveled to Atlanta, and into the pages of Damage #6, to contain a young hero who couldn’t control his powers. It was actually a fun issue. It was one last adventure for Pantha, Red Star and Wildebeest before they left the team. Plus, it helped lay the groundwork for the new team of Titans that would arise out of Zero Hour.
Perhaps intentionally, Damage #6 also established a precedent that the Titans were about to become more integrated with the wider DC Universe. The Titans hadn’t exactly eschewed outside connections in the past. They had crossed over successfully with Batman & the Outsiders and Infinity Inc. Plus, one of their greatest stories, “A Lonely Place of Dying,” was a crossover with Batman. But, in their heyday, the Titans had often been excused from the company-wide crossovers like Legends and Invasion. Now, in the new order, the Titans would regularly cross over with other titles like Damage, Green Lantern and Darkstars. Whether the new integrated approach brought more benefits or troubles is debatable, but it definitely brought a different feel to the title.
The new line-up debuted in New Titans #0 (October, 1994). I found it a pleasant blend of old and new- Arsenal and Changeling represented the classic eras of the Titans (the Silver Age and the Wolfman-Perez years), Mirage and Terra had been brought over from Team Titans, while new imports Damage and Impulse represented the team’s future. Wolfman also introduced a brand new character, Jarras Minion, in an outer space subplot though he wouldn’t meet the team quite yet.
I enjoyed the interaction between the characters as well. The young trio of Damage, Impulse and Terra were particularly delightful. I enjoyed the way Terra teased the two boys. She brought a sense of humor back to the Titans that had been missing since Changeling went dark. Her quips were also funnier and less mean-spirited than Pantha, Wolfman’s previous attempt to replace Changeling as the team comedian. I wasn’t happy to see Mirage on the team. She was one of my least favorite Teamsters and I still resented her for meddling with Dick and Kory. I would have preferred Red Wing, who seemed interesting in her New Titans appearances, though I wasn’t aware she had been turning more birdlike over in Team Titans at the time. I was also disappointed that Changeling left the new line-up so quickly. It seemed like he was barely there before he was off to join Raven’s dark side squad. In fact, Changeling was the second villain they fought as a new team when he went all dragon-y in issue #115. Wolfman quickly replaced Gar with another classic Titan in Donna Troy (now a Darkstar) but it still felt like he hadn’t been given enough time to mingle with the new team.
New addition J.B. Jones was the best artist on the title since Tom Grummett had left, though that’s admittedly a bit of a backhanded compliment. Jones wouldn’t last long—Will Rosado would replace him with January’s #117—but he helped establish a new look for the Titans that neatly blended Grummett’s crispness with Mays’ modern manga touches. Unfortunately, Jones’ dragon-y Changeling looked way too much like the villain from the X-Men’s “Inferno” which made it hard for me to take the story seriously.
The New Titans closed out the year with a crossover with the new Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner. The story started in issue #116, jumped over to GL #57 and then finished up in New Titans #117 (January, 1995). Marv Wolfman had intentionally avoided the Titans’ traditional villains since he had returned from a vacation in 1987 but now, with a new team, it was time to bring some classic foes back to the fore. The crossover featured a powered-up Psimon. Even without the rest of the Fearsome Five, his mental powers were enough to challenge the entire Titans team. The Psimon appearance was a nice tip of the hat to longtime fans and a good way to measure the new team members. By the end of the story, Kyle Rayner had joined the Titans and Jarras Minion had arrived as a potential ally.
New Titans wasn’t a great title anymore but it was back to being readable. It wasn’t what every fan was looking for—especially those who weren’t ready to let go of the classic line-up of the Wolfman/Perez era—but it was enjoyable if you took it on its own terms. There was a good mix of characters’ ages, personalities and powers. There was the return of a classic villain. And the art, while not setting the world on fire, was worth looking at again. For the first time in a long time, New Titans ended a year in better shape than they began it.
Marv Wolfman has made it clear in interviews that he had trouble with the crossovers and the editors of the time, and it shows. He has specifically said that the post-Zero Hour team was not at all of his choice.
That it was still more readable and focused than the post-Hunt issues says a lot about how bad the title had become. And IMO that the book had went on this far shows how well-regarded the early 1980s issues were, not without reason.
The change in editors happened fairly quickly by this point, and seems to have done more to set the tone of the book than anything by Marv Wolfman, who plainly did not have his heart on it anymore. Particularly noticeable after Zero Hour is how much effort was put into attempting to create a shared continuity among a specific set of books (Green Lantern, Darkstars, Damage, Deathstroke and New Titans), almost as if they were declared an imprint as Vertigo sometimes was or as Image has. Unfortunately, that was made in a rather heavy-handed way and the results were passable at best. It was sort of irritating to feel pressured into buying Darkstars all the time to know what happened with the Titans, or vice-versa. Interestingly, Damage and particularly Green Lantern were somewhat protected from those efforts.
I don't remember if Impulse (who could have been a great Titan at the time if the climate were different) had his book already, but it is also noteworthy that Starfire and Nightwing sort of took refuge in a Flash storyline right before Nightwing was absorved back into the Batman franchise due to Knightfall and its consequences.
It seems to me that at some point in the first half of the 1990s it was decided that some books and characters should not be spoiled by too much association with the New Titans, while others should become part of a joint effort of raising each other's profile. So Flash and Green Lantern were "protected", while Darkstars, Damage and Deathstroke all attempted to be part of a coherent (some might say forced) Titans Universe of some kind and sort of fell together as a consequence.