The Teen Titans Project (1996-1998): The Jurgens Era

The Teen Titans Project, Part XX:  Starting from Scratch (1996-1998)

I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who remembers Dan Jurgens’ Teen Titans fondly.  Everybody else seems to have forgotten it entirely- including DC.   By 1996, the Titans franchise had been driven into the ground and Dan Jurgens was given the task of recreating the Teen Titans for a new generation.  He decided to start over from scratch, introducing a brand new team with brand new characters (and one notable exception).  Personally, I loved it.  Yet, even at the time, it seemed like the new team was fighting an uphill battle against the perception that they weren’t the “real Titans.”  That was bad because the Jurgens era was often a fun, rollicking adventure. 

Dan Jurgens created four new characters for Teen Titans.  It was a bold move and, in my opinion, a welcome one.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to invent new characters that are all equally compelling.  I had my favorites.  I could identify with Isaiah Crockett, aka Joto- the well-intentioned, bookish nerd.  At the same time, I appreciated our differences.  Isaiah was African-American and his parents were slightly disappointed that he pursued a superhero career instead of Ivy League academics.  I was also interested in Toni Monetti, aka Argent.  She was a Jersey girl and a mobster’s daughter before The Sopranos and Jersey Shore made those attributes cliché.  On the surface, she was a selfish shopaholic, yet she quickly revealed depths of compassion, selflessness and heroism.  Plus, I was still young enough at the time to crush on comic book characters.

I was less enthused with Cody Driscoll, aka Risk, and Prysm.  Readers were probably supposed to empathize with Cody’s poor upbringing but his cockiness rubbed me the wrong way.  It was also hard to take him seriously as a hero when he wore a turquoise costume.  I couldn’t relate to Prysm either.  She had been raised in a virtual world that blended Leave It to Beaver with Snow White.  In retrospect, I can see how Prysm’s background was played for laughs yet, then and now, I feel like it made her more of a caricature than a character. 

Ray Palmer, the longtime hero Atom, rounded out the cast.  He had been de-aged in a recent crossover and was a teenager again.  He brought experience and Justice League connections to an untested team, but at a cost.  Jurgens did a good job of playing off the generational differences between Atom and the others while also showing Atom’s frustration at no longer being an adult.  It was a solid cast, blending different powers and personalities- though, admittedly, some characters were more interesting than others. 

Dan Jurgens followed familiar stepping-stones for the first arc though with a professional polish that made those issues better than the usual fare.  He combined an origin story with a team-gathering tale.  Aliens kidnapped Isaiah, Toni and Cody (the Atom was an unexpected stowaway).  The three teens discovered that they were the products of a genetic experiment- they were half-alien and they had superpowers.  The Atom helped them escape, along with the imprisoned Prysm.  Once back on earth, Mr. Jupiter offered to sponsor and mentor the team as he had done for a previous version of Teen Titans (issue #4, Jan. ’97).  The mysterious Omen would also serve as an advisor.  The new heroes agreed, underwent training and moved into a facility owned by Mr. Jupiter.  They also ran into a few other heroes who wanted to be sure they wouldn’t besmirch the Titans name thrust upon them by the press (issue #5, Feb. ’97).  It was a typical- though good- excuse to boost sales with guest-stars Nightwing, Robin, Supergirl and Captain Marvel Jr.

As I said, it was a fairly standard opening yet it didn’t feel formulaic.  Dan Jurgens kept things fresh with a little light humor.  Plus, the art was excellent.  Dan Jurgens was the main artist as well as the writer.  At the time, Jurgens had a very clean style, similar to Tom Grummett though less cartoony.  His characters felt real without being photorealistic.  Plus, Jurgens had always been a very clear storyteller with page and panel layouts that helped the story flow quickly and smoothly. 

As a bonus, George Perez was on board as the regular inker.  Perez had spent the early ‘90s bouncing around indie companies, while developing a reputation for lateness.  He took the inking gig as a way of rebuilding his name.  It worked.  Perez’s inks looked great, while also creating a visual connection with the classic Titans of yore.  Perez would hang around for 15 issues before jumping onto an Avengers re-launch.  

After a solid beginning, Teen Titans started to heat up in the second half of their first year.  Jurgens and Perez introduced a rival team known as Dark Nemesis and pitted them against the Teen Titans (issues #7-8, April-May 1997).  Dark Nemesis seemed to share a connection with the Titans; they were apparently part of the same alien experiment.  It was like fighting a funhouse mirror version of themselves except that Dark Nemesis was more ruthless than the altruistic Titans.  Dark Nemesis would remain a thorn in the side of the Titans throughout the Jurgens era; they even took over the title for an issue as part of the New Year’s Evil event.  They were the best new Titans villains since the first Wildebeest arrived on the scene in the late ‘80s. 

The Teen Titans followed up that fight with an adventure in Skartaris, home of the Warlord (issues #9-11, June-Aug. ’97).  It was a fun escapade, reminiscent of the many X-Men adventures in the Savage Land.  The Titans became embroiled in a battle for control of the magical land while wearing the standard loincloths of the sword ‘n’ sorcery genre.  Jurgens used the adventure to reveal different aspects of the Titans.  Risk in particular stepped up as a hero.  The Skartaris adventure also advanced a couple of romantic subplots as Prysm revealed her crush on Risk while Joto pined for Argent.  The Titans were growing as individuals, as a title and as a team.

Upon their return from Skartaris, the Titans found themselves enmeshed in a horror story come to life.  Teen Titans Annual #1 was part of the Pulp Heroes theme.  Jurgens took inspiration from the Donner Party to create a town of Donner-like descendants who feasted on passing strangers.  It was a good concept and an interesting change of pace.  Unfortunately, the art wasn’t very good.  The young guest artist, John Cassaday, would go on to great things but, for this issue, his faces were stiff and lifeless.  It sort of worked for the creepy cannibals but it didn’t convey the fear and terror of the regular cast. 

That wasn’t the only Titans annual to come out that summer.  Manga-style artist Adam Warren had been hired to draw an annual for the previous year’s theme, Legends of the Dead Earth.  However, Warren hadn’t completed the project on time.  Plus, the preceding New Titans title had been cancelled.  Yet the story was too good to shelve.  It was released in the summer of 1997 as part of DC’s growing Elseworlds line.  Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone took place in the far future featuring a team of Titans based on Robin, Raven, Starfire and Cyborg.  Warren did a great job of reimagining the Titans in new yet familiar roles.  He also did a great job of alternating scenes between a big fight and team-gathering vignettes, establishing the character’s origins while sustaining a high-octane action story.  Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone is one of my favorite Elseworlds tales. 

The Teen Titans’ second year was a little more erratic, betraying that the title was struggling to find a place in the market.  It’s difficult to discuss the Jurgens’ era without reflecting on external factors.  Teen Titans had been launched during one of the biggest sales slumps in the history of comics (the post-speculator bust of the late ‘90s).  There were also concerns about fans accepting a Titans title with all-new characters instead of the familiar heroes of the past.  For their second year, Teen Titans embarked on multiple arcs and events that seemed designed to boost sales.  Obviously, every comic book wants to sell well but some attempts are more obvious than others.

The first arc, titled “Then & Now” (issues #12-15, Sept. ’97-Jan. ’98), brought the original Titans into play, prominently displaying Nightwing, Flash, Tempest and Arsenal on consecutive covers.  Jurgens devised a credible story reason for turning to the old Titans- the new Titans were lost in Skartaris so Mr. Jupiter called on his former students to combat a new threat.  The threat turned out to be Mr. Jupiter’s son, Haze, seeking revenge on the father who had neglected him.  The old Titans agree to team-up against the powerful and vindictive Haze.  The new Titans returned in the middle of the story and Haze used his reality-altering powers to pit the teams against each other.  They eventually broke free of Haze’s control and worked together to defeat him.  Along the way, they also learned that the mysterious Omen was Mr. Jupiter’s daughter and former Titan, Lilith.  However, the victory came at a huge cost.  In a rite of passage that’s so common it’s become cliché, one of the new Titans died to defeat Haze. 

I’m of a divided mind regarding “Then & Now.”  I love the Titans- as you know by now- and I was delighted to see old favorites show up.  But I also resented that the new team was pushed to the sidelines of their own title.  It seemed to reinforce the idea that they weren’t the real Titans.  I enjoyed seeing the updated, adult versions of the original team.  Aqualad had finally adopted a new, adult identity as Tempest in a 1996 mini-series.  But Arsenal seemed to take a step backwards by wearing a “Red Arrow” costume (Devin Grayson would correct course in a 1998 mini-series in which Roy emphasized his Native American roots with a Navajo-inspired costume).  I was also unhappy that Jurgens killed off my favorite new Titan, Joto, at the end of the arc.  But even that development had a flip side as it caused the other Titans to mature and I found myself liking Argent, Prysm and Risk more than before.  “Then & Now” was a mixed bag and a mixed blessing.

The Titans took the death of Joto hard.  After an issue of mourning (#16, Jan. ’98), the team split up, setting up a new event.  The four surviving members took part in Double-Shot team-up issues with Robin, Superboy, Supergirl and Impulse (Argent, Risk, Prysm and Atom respectively).  The one-shots showcased the individual Titans, revealing how they were growing and maturing in the wake of Joto’s death- with the exception of Atom who participated in an intentionally silly romp with Impulse.  The Double-Shots were satisfying stories, though they again betrayed the fact that the Teen Titans needed to do extraordinary things to draw the attention of fans.

After their solo adventures, the Teen Titans realized that they weren’t ready to pack it in as a team.  The restored team even held a membership drive in issue #17 (Feb. ’98).  I usually enjoy membership drives but this particular issue didn’t work for me.  The team only added two new members- Fringe, a monster alien-human hybrid who had been following Prysm since the opening arc, and Captain Marvel Jr.  Neither character added much.  Fringe had a weird power set- he was a monster who summoned an even bigger astral monster- while Captain Marvel Jr. seemed out of place since he didn’t share a history with the other Titans.  The story itself felt cluttered, spotlighting a bunch of characters with no lasting impact.  

            Following the disruptions of “Then & Now” and the Double-Shot event, Jurgens spend the next few months reestablishing the Titans as a team.  They fought Dark Nemesis again as part of the New Year’s Evil event (Dark Nemesis #1, cover date Feb. ’98).  They also participated in “The Millennium Giants” event with the Superman titles (Teen Titans #19, Apr. ’98).  The crossover gave the team the opportunity to showcase their skills in action though it also added to the haphazard feeling of the title as it bounced from one special event to another.  Jurgens alternated these action stories with lighter fare, highlighting the characters in quieter secret identity stories.  The team visited an arcade together in issue #18 (Mar. ’98) while issue #20 revolved around a disastrous date between Argent and Captain Marvel Jr. (May ’98).  I enjoyed the rhythm of action-rest-action-rest and I appreciated the increasing depth of characterization for the current Titans.  I also appreciated the way Jurgens maintained a narrative arc through the many disruptions.  Yet I will admit that the Titans felt like a little erratic at this time.

            The erratic nature of the Titans was unintentionally reinforced by the art.  George Perez departed at the end of “Then & Now” and the title hadn’t found a regular inker since then.  Instead, there was a new inker almost every issue.  Joe Rubinstein, Phil Jimenez and Norm Rapmund are each good in their own way but their disparate styles left the title feeling inconsistent.  When you include the guest-artists on the Double-Shot and Dark Nemesis specials, the feeling that the Titans couldn’t find a consistent look became even more acute.

            The extraordinary efforts to draw additional attention to the Teen Titans only managed to delay the inevitable.  The Titans embarked on their final arc in the summer of 1998, named “Titans Hunt” in a nod to a classic story from the past (issues #21-24, June-Sept. ’98).  Unlike Marv Wolfman’s final arc in which he discarded his current line-up to focus on returning characters, Dan Jurgens cut out the extras and focused on his core cast.  Even Captain Marvel Jr. spent most of the final arc on the sidelines.  Instead, Risk, Prysm, Fringe and Argent stepped to the fore in a final fight against the aliens that had manipulated them since birth.  Dark Nemesis, who had been products of the experiment, returned for the final epic as well.  Jurgens upped the stakes with a few guest-stars in Superman and Changeling but the focus remained on the new Titans.  He also kept things lively with major turning points such as the death of Prysm and the resurrection of Joto. 

For me, “Titans Hunt” demonstrated that this version of the Titans were at their best when Jurgens focused on his own characters.  The attention-grabbing events were unnecessary- and even counterproductive- in terms of the title’s quality.  However, my opinion is apparently a minority position.  Jurgens’ characters- Joto, Risk and Argent- would make few appearances in the future as most fans were ready to return to the classic characters of the Silver and Bronze Ages.       

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This was a good effort.  

Jurgens is a writer that does not get nearly enough credit.  Establishing the Titans in terms of the present as opposed to the past, focusing on personal relationships alternating with action, having gathering of the team and personal journey plots - all of those were badly needed decisions.  Having good art all the way through was also a welcome change after the last few years of Wolfman's Titans and the general horror show of the second half of the 1990s.

But it did come out at just about the worst of all conceivable times.  The market was very cannibalistic at the time, and it seems to me that while he did a valiant effort, Jurgens simply did not have the option to avoid crossovers for crossovering sake.  I doubt Millenium Giants did the Titans any good, for instance.

I read this version of the Titans and I liked it, but I never quite finished it for whatever reason. I continued to buy it, though, and always intended to go back and re-read the entire series from the beginning but I never did. I don't recall exactly when I dropped off, but it was near the end. I know I read all of the Perez issues. I didn't rememeber a whole lot about it (until I read your synopsis and it all came back to me), just that I liked it.

SIGH. So much to read, so little time.

It's only 24 issues- 30 if you include the Annual, Double-Shots and Dark Nemesis special. You should be able to read that in a week.
That's a good summary, Luis. You put your finger on the strengths of the title as well as the challenges facing it.

Luis Olavo de Moura Dantas said:

This was a good effort.  

Jurgens is a writer that does not get nearly enough credit.  Establishing the Titans in terms of the present as opposed to the past, focusing on personal relationships alternating with action, having gathering of the team and personal journey plots - all of those were badly needed decisions.  Having good art all the way through was also a welcome change after the last few years of Wolfman's Titans and the general horror show of the second half of the 1990s.

But it did come out at just about the worst of all conceivable times.  The market was very cannibalistic at the time, and it seems to me that while he did a valiant effort, Jurgens simply did not have the option to avoid crossovers for crossovering sake.  I doubt Millenium Giants did the Titans any good, for instance.

Didn't Captain Marvel Jr. get a spot on the team because he won some vote of the readership?  I seem to remember something like that...   And of course, this was the first time that the issue of him being unable to say his name out loud without transforming back into Freddy was really addressed, resulting in the fortunately short-lived new codename "CM3".  They got a little closer with Lilith this time (she was slightly less flaky than Wolfman's version), but she was again saddled with a whole new origin which, like the previous one, fit exactly none of the clues that were set out from the beginning of that dangling plot line.  I remain surprised that no one seems to have come to the obvious conclusion that Mr. Jupiter is really Donna Troy's long-lost and never-named father!   I also thought the Mad Mod was used to better effect than I would have guessed possible (altho not as much fun as he was in the Titans Toon later).  Still, for all it's flaws and crossover overdose, this was a fun little series, even if too many of the characters got killed over so few issues (even if Joto did get better), and that would only get worse in the next iteration.

You remember correctly, Dave. 

http://www.titanstower.com/captain-marvel-jr/

In this interview Dan Jurgens admits to being surprised by the vote results and to not quite knowing how to deal with a perceived tone mismatch between the Power of Shazam universe and his Titans.

Interestingly, this Titans series begins and ends entirely inside the timeframe of the concurrent Power of  Shazam! series by Jerry Ordway.  That series had its own creative strengths, and reintroduced Freddy to the DCU after nearly ten years f absence, but it wasn't always a great fit for Freddy either.  Ordway's plots tended to take many months to be told and to center far more on Billy and Mary.  Freddy was actually half written out of the book, moving outside of Fawcett City and having a couple of solo stories in the POS book (#14 and #37), but otherwise just not appearing much. Ordway did not seem to have particularly clear plans for using Freddy and may have inadvertently set up the stage for his use somewhere else.

The CM3 alias actually debuted in Power of Shazam! #37, published in the same month as #19 of this series.  The whole Titans team made a very brief guest-appearance in POS #41, in the penultimate month of existence of this Titans series.  By that point Power of Shazam, never the fastest plot teller, suffered from low sales and excessive guest appearances.

I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who remembers Dan Jurgens’ Teen Titans fondly

I really enjoyed this incarnation of the Titans also, although I found the new characters less original than you appeared to –
Prysm = Starfire
Joto = Cyborg
Risk = Speedy/Hawkeye
Argent = Wonder Girl / Huntress

I would have accepted them as their own team easier had they NOT have taken/been given the Teen Titans group name. I never understood why they would have given themselves that label – they had sero connections to the legacy of that name.

Once the older Titans began filtering in the series changed quite drastically and I believe that was to the detriment of these new guys, they were also going to be supporting characters once the Titans big-guns came back.

Argent looked a lot more like Kyle Rayner to me, personally.  Despite that and the skimpy costumes, I sort of liked her.  I will agree that Joto reminded one a lot of Cyborg.

Looking back, the creation of a Titans team with no real connection to the previous ones is slightly surprising, but to me the small interval between the end of the previous team and the start of this one is a bigger surprise.  It almost feels like someone at DC overestimated the importance of the team name itself.

In-story, the name choice was made by a sensationalist reporter that found them during their first fight on Earth. They did adopt it pretty quickly, though, even before being sure they wanted to be a team.  

To me it looked like one of the subtlest plot points by Jurgens: all of them, even Atom, were longing for acknowledgement and a clear role in the world. Being branded "Teen Titans" even while getting the interest of Mr. Jupiter was just much too tempting.

It is interesting that Jurgens explicitly made these Titans family in a way, even giving them a psychic link and a stray (Atom).  He also made it clear in interviews and letter columns that he perceived the team as connected to Robin and Nightwing.  

What I find most interesting in this whole run is that it dared to reintroduce the Titans when there was good reason to wonder whether the concept had outlived its appeal and viability - and it did so with tender loving care, not by exacerbating previous trends but instead by introducing something new and with an appeal of its own - exactly what the later years of the New Titans ought to have done but did not.

It helped that the art was both good and consistent (I did not mind the changes in finishers much) - again, something that the previous series had pretty much given up for years at the end.

It also seems to me that Jurgens wanted to write the book for a lot longer than he did.  There are a lot of potential storylines unrealized, particularly with Omen and Prysm, as well as the interactions between Arsenal and Ray.  Even Jupiter seems to have an untold tale or two on him.

The supposed mystery of Omen was a bit too easy to decipher, though.  There are not a very many former Titans with psychic powers, nor with a tendency to be obscure.  It came down almost immediately to Raven or Lilith, and Raven never even met Loren Jupiter, nor would she speak of herself as having been there since so early.  Nightwing seems to know for certain who Omen is as of #5, and so should anyone really.

I think part of the problem with this incarnation is that the characters who would soon form the nucleus of Young Justice had already been introduced (and guest-starred in this series), and Superboy, Robin, Impulse & Wonder Girl were the obvious ones to take up the Teen Titans mantle, even if it took way too long for them to finally do so.  The new kids were ok, and the comic definitely had its moments, but I think a lot of the readership (and potential readership) wanted the latest generation of "legacy" heroes there (but then, how does that explain CM3 winning the vote for membership over any of them?) instead of these newbies that seemed unconnected to the Titans.  Heck, as half-aliens searching for their place in the world, this line-up would have made the most "outside" group of Outsiders ever!

I really enjoyed this incarnation of the Titans also, although I found the new characters less original than you appeared to –
Prysm = Starfire
Joto = Cyborg
Risk = Speedy/Hawkeye
Argent = Wonder Girl / Huntress

Wow, that's an incredibly superficial rundown of the characters.  Argent isn't anything like Wonder Girl, except for the fact that they're both women.  She has a completely different set of powers and a completely different personality.  Joto and Cyborg don't have much more in common than their skin color either.  Sure, they're both smart, and they both became heroes despite interests that could have led them in another direction.  But Vic was the athlete while Isaiah was the mathlete, Vic was brash while Isaiah was shy.  Plus, again, they have completely different powers.  

Chris,

   Yes it was and was meant to be a simplistic overview,

   My point was that they all appeared a bit stereotypical or rather that we had 'seen their type before' and I was thinking more of character than powers.

For instance 'naive, stranger in our world powerhouse = Prysm = Starefire.

Brash and confident =Risk=Hawkeye

Quiet and contemplative while brave and moral = Joto = Cyborg (colour being incidental)

And with Argent I meant she was beautiful =Wonder girl and from a mob-family background = Huntress.

...was what I was trying to get at. Common traits thrown in the pot but little to make the new guys 'different'

I liked the team and what Jugens was trying. I also loved his updating of the old Titans.

Ideally he would have revitalised the old guard in one title and given the new guys their own team name and title with room to grow on their own.

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