The Teen Titans Project (1999): Neo-Classicism- The Devin Grayson Era

The Teen Titans Project, Part XXI: 

Neo-Classicism (1999)

 

            The story of the next volume of The Titans began in late 1996 when Grant Morrison and Howard Porter introduced a new version of JLA (cover date January 1997).  Morrison’s JLA evoked the classic days of the Silver Age, paired with an updated modern feel.  He reused the classic Silver Age line-up- the Magnificent Seven- and pitted them against revamped Silver Age villains like The Key.  Morrison’s JLA was a huge hit.  It built on the Reconstruction movement Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross had developed in Flash, Marvels, Astro City and Kingdom Come, reclaiming some of the wonder and awe of superheroes that had been lost in the deconstruction of the genre in the ‘80s.  Along with Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s Avengers (February ’98), Morrison’s JLA helped usher in a mini superhero boom after the dark days of the mid-‘90s.  I once coined the term Reconstruction to describe this era but it could be just as accurately called Neo-Classicism.  It was classic and new at the time, respectful of the past yet pointed toward the future. 

            JLA had an immense impact on the rest of DC’s line, spinning off solo series for Martian Manhunter (1998) and Hourman (1999) as well as team books like Young Justice (1998) and a newly fashioned JSA (1999).  The reconstructed JLA also led to a new version of The Titans (1999), paving the way via the excellent crossover mini-series JLA vs. Titans (Dec. ’98-Feb. ‘99).  Full disclosure: I still have a gatefold poster composed from the mini-series’ covers hanging in my bedroom so you know I loved this story. 

            JLA vs. Titans brought together the perfect creative team.  Writer Devin Grayson was a huge Nightwing fan, crediting the character for her love of comics.  She’d previously worked on a Nightwing Annual and on the Arsenal mini-series published earlier that year.  Artist Phil Jimenez was a huge New Teen Titans fan as well, closely basing his style on George Perez.  He had previously drawn fill-in arcs on New Titans, written a Donna Troy one-shot and most recently worked on the Tempest mini-series.  No other contemporary creators had greater familiarity with or appreciation for the Titans. 

            The first issue veered between two connected storylines- a huge alien object was approaching the moon and threatening to engulf it; meanwhile, smaller alien pods were scouring the earth and abducting all of the former Titans.  The JLA tried to defend the moon before splitting their focus to rescue the shanghaied younger heroes.  Raven escaped via her soul-self while Nightwing managed to wake himself up from the pod’s virtual reality.  They freed two more Titans, Flash and Changeling, but it was Changeling who figured out that the entity behind everything was their old teammate, Vic Stone, aka Cyborg.  

            The four Titans proceeded to free the rest of their teammates, entering into the virtual reality to convince them to return to the real world.  Meanwhile, the JLA received reports from around the world of natural disasters caused by Cyborg’s capture of the moon.  The Justice Leaguers and Titans soon clashed, at odds as to whether they should stop Cyborg or save him from himself.  Sure, it’s a bit of a cliché to have two super-teams fight each other but it’s a lot of fun, too.  Jimenez pulled out the stops, including an homage to the famous Perez cover for long-abandoned JLA vs. Avengers project.

            At the end of the issue, the JLA agreed to let the Titans mount a rescue operation.  The Titans would enter the heart of Cyborg’s moon-sized citadel while the JLA would try to contain it from the outside.  At the same time, smaller groups from the combined teams would work to minimize the natural disasters.  The rescue team convinced Vic to let go of the moon.  Changeling, Raven and Lilith then led Vic’s soul to occupy the vacant Omegadrome (formerly belonging to Jarras Minion of Arsenal’s team) while Green Lantern rescued the rescue team from space. 

            JLA vs. Titans was an absolutely brilliant story.  It followed many of the expected steps (two teams fighting each other, smaller split squads) but with the grace and poise of a professional dancer.  It was emotionally resonant and beautifully depicted.  Grayson wrote two of my favorite Titans scenes of all-time, demonstrating a deft touch for characterization in moments big and small.  In one scene, Nightwing enters Donna’s v.r. world and sees her playing with her son Bobby.  Dick softly tells her, “This isn’t real.”  Donna turns to him with tears streaming down her cheek and replies, “I know.”  In one short sequence, Grayson and Jimenez poignantly conveyed a mother’s love and grief as well as the deep friendship between Dick and Donna.  In another sequence, the various Titans try to remind Vic of his humanity.  Then, suddenly, Changeling yells, “Hey, Rust-Bucket!  Let go of the frickin’ moon already!”  Grayson lightens the emotional tension while at the same time demonstrating the deep bond that allows good friends to tease each other- a better reminder to Vic of his humanity than any reason the others could mention.  These scenes still give me chills. 

            Phil Jimenez was just as brilliant.  I already mentioned his wonderful homage to George Perez.  Jimenez also revealed that he learned a lot from Perez about page and panel layout.  Jimenez used the entire page deftly, creating panels that played off of each other.  During the great JLA vs. Titans fight, he surrounded smaller panels of the battle with close-ups of Nightwing and Batman arguing about their overall strategy.  And during the rescue operation, he showed Vic slowly losing his cybernetic apparatus, becoming more human from panel to panel.  Jimenez showed artistic imagination and vision rarely seen in comics, conveying the passage of time in one scene and concurrent events in another.  JLA vs. Titans remains one of my favorite stories and it was an excellent introduction to a new Titans title.

               The new Titans title, called simply The Titans, debuted with two interlocking issues in March 1999.  Titans #1 featured a solid story structure in which Grayson flipped between a battle with a newly constituted H.I.V.E. and a conversation between the original Titans discussing who they should include in the new line-up.  Mark Buckingham was brought on board as the series artist and he was a huge catch.  Buckingham had a cheery style that was reminiscent of Tom Grummett.  Plus he had a wonderful reputation thanks to his work on Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman and Death series. 

A Secret Files & Origins issue was released that same month.  It coincided with issue #1, fitting between the line-up conversation and the later battle and showing the original Titans as they recruited the new members.  Grayson also included a couple of shorter stories helping to establish characterizations she would pursue in the ongoing title.  I was really pleased with the new line-up.  It was a great blend of old and new.  Grayson included all five of the original Titans in their adult identities: Arsenal, Flash, Nightwing, Tempest and Troia.  She also added representatives from the other eras of the Titans: Cyborg and Starfire from the classic Wolfman and Perez years, Damage from the last days of the New Titans, and Argent from the Dan Jurgens team.  Finally, she added a new member to the team in Jesse Quick.  It was a wonderful stroke of neo-classicism. 

The H.I.V.E. battle continued into issue #2 (April 2000) as Superman dropped by to make sure that the new Titans could handle themselves.  Devin Grayson cleverly defused the situation by having Nightwing split from the team so that he could talk to Superman without anyone else overhearing.  Nightwing’s intentional absence also demonstrated that the Titans could function well as a team as they stepped out to defeat the H.I.V.E. without him.  The only surprise for Dick was that Jesse Quick stepped up as field leader ahead of one of the longstanding Titans. 

            For their second adventure (issues #3-4, May-June ’99), Grayson introduced a new villain named Goth.  He was clearly modeled on Goth rocker Marilyn Manson, though he was portrayed as a horror movie star instead.  Goth had an arcane connection to Dis, one of the suburbs of Hell and he kidnapped thousands of disaffected youth to the underworld.  The Titans managed to follow him and Starfire was able to convince the teens that they cared about something after all, namely Goth when she almost killed him.  Grayson also used this story to delve into the characters. 

Donna had recently been recreated via Wally’s memories in another ill-advised retelling of Donna’s origin over in John Byrne’s Wonder Woman.  Though I wasn’t fond of the Byrne story, I thought that Grayson salvaged it in an interesting way.  Donna began to doubt herself, wondering if she was a watered-down partial version of herself.  She became standoffish towards Wally and began flirting with Roy as a way of testing her wild side.  When she was unable to enter Dis, Donna’s anxiety about her existence intensified.  

            The next two issues featured individual heroes in smaller stories.  In issue #5 (July ’99), Tempest responds to a call for help from a small seaside village in Maine (it was nicely reminiscent of the very early Titans stories in Brave & the Bold).  Tempest brought Argent and Damage along, establishing a mentor role to the younger heroes, but it was mostly his story.  They fought a new villain named Siren and freed the village from her mind-control. 

In issue #6 (Aug. ’99), Donna’s date with Roy is interrupted by the reappearance of the Red Panzer, a Nazi villain she fought in her one-shot.  Kyle Rayner, Donna’s former boyfriend and the current Green Lanter, also dropped by to create some romantic tension.  In a subplot, Lian Harper’s babysitter discovers that she’s the daughter of international terrorist Cheshire and freaks out. 

I realize that Grayson had built a big cast for this series and needed to pare the group down for a bit in order to focus on characterization, but it felt a little too early for me.  The new Titans had only had two adventures together before the focus shifted to small groups and individuals.  I might have enjoyed these stories more if they had occurred after a few more stories with the full team.  At the same time, I know that Grayson was building up a new rogues’ gallery.  She’d already hinted that Siren and Red Panzer would join Vandal Savage in an anti-Titans consortium.  While I can appreciate what she was doing, these issues felt like a bit of a letdown after the promise of the debut issues.

  A larger subset of the team gathered for the next story in issues #7 and 8 (Sept. and Oct. ’99).  Cyborg, Starfire and Jesse Quick joined Tempest, Argent and Damage as they tried to investigate a series of speed-induced injuries.  They soon discovered that the speed epidemic was the result of a new designer drug.  Argent also discovered that the man behind the epidemic was her own father.  The discovery put Argent temporarily at odds with the rest of the team.  However, she eventually opted to stand with the Titans and allow her mob father to be arrested.  It was a pivotal moment for the character that Grayson had been building to since Secret Files & Origins established Toni’s childhood heroic aspirations.  

Issue #9 (Nov. ’99) was part of the Day of Judgment crossover.  Crossovers had interrupted Titans series in the past but this story was a pretty good fit.  Grayson used the main plot of the denizens of Hell invading Earth to bring Goth back for an encore.  She also took time to progress several character subplots, reuniting Roy with Lian and her babysitter, having Raven and Donna explore her apparent lack of a soul, and showing Vandal Savage recruit members to his anti-Titan team, Tartarus.  Instead of an interruption, the Day of Judgment crossover was a well-written transition issue. 

I did, however, miss Mark Buckingham.  This was the second time that Buckingham had needed a break.  Justiniano had capably filled in on the original Goth story in issues 3-4 (though it’s hard to compliment his art knowing that he would be arrested for viewing child pornography several years later).  Now, Ale Garza took a turn.  Garza brought a strong Manga-influence to the Titans that clashed a little bit with Buckingham’s round style.  It’s also too bad that a character-centric issue was drawn by someone who wasn’t quite as good at depicting emotion as Buckingham.

The Titans finished up their first year with an epic battle against Vandal Savage’s Tartarus (issues #10-12, Dec. ’99 to Feb. ’00).  Deathstroke and Changeling returned, joining the full complement of Titans to take on Tartarus.  However, the real rifts occurred internally.  Savage offered Vic a new human body, peeling him away from the rest of the team.  Arsenal was more interested in rescuing Cheshire than defeating her, leading to conflict with several teammates.  Nightwing didn’t trust the replacement Flash, even after Donna vouched for him.  And the newer Titans didn’t trust Deathstroke.  The conflicted leadership and the competing priorities were nearly the team’s undoing.  They managed to defeat Tartarus but Starfire killed the former HIVE leader now Tartarus hostage, Addie Wilson, in the process.  Cyborg rejoined the Titans in time to avert a nuclear disaster but his earlier hesitation ignited JLA suspicion of his true loyalties.  And Arsenal successfully rescued Cheshire but his loyalty to her led the rest of the team to doubt him.  It was a great story, taking the character moments from the previous year and dragging them through the fire of battle.  It was simultaneously their biggest victory and their worst loss- and a testament to Grayson’s ability as a storyteller. 

As much as I enjoyed the Dan Jurgens era of the Titans, I have to admit that the team and the title hadn’t been this good in over a decade.  Grayson, Jimenez and Buckingham had created a new version of the Titans on a classic foundation.  It was the Titans title fans demanded and it was almost everything I could have asked for at the time.    

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Great overview, Chris. You make me want to go back and reread my run of this, and especially JLA/Titans. I remember the high hopes I had for this series; I bought the first issue and the Secret Files on a trip to Quebec City, and read and re-read them on the train home. The title started losing its luster for me with the Goth stories -- oh, how I groaned at that villain! -- but I kept on with it for a while, but not through the whole run. So I'll be interested in seeing how the subsequent years turn out. 

...and "Part XXI"? You're gonna have a book when this is through!

Thanks, Rob.  Like you, I wasn't impressed with Goth when he first appeared.  I'm not much of a Marilyn Manson fan so that didn't help.  But he doesn't annoy me as much anymore.  I can write him off as a product of the time- kind of like Ding Dong Daddy in the Silver Age or the perms, bobs, berets and vests of the early Perez issues- and enjoy him as a snapshot in history.

...and "Part XXI"? You're gonna have a book when this is through!

I'm at 74 pages so far...

I take it you meant Sandman, not Miracleman?

I'm probably wrong, but I don't think Buckingham ever did any Sandman work. But he was the artist who took the reins when Neil Gaiman took over Miracleman from Alan Moore.

Buckingham was also the artist on the Death: High Cost of Living mini-series.

I stand corrected.

Actually, the thing (pretty much the only thing) I liked about Goth was that he did seem like a throw-back to those old style Titans' foes.  And at least his supernatural nature offered the possibility of him being able to update himself to being whatever sort of non-Marilyn Manson looking villain would work with any future disaffected teens motif.

Oh, and one bit that I really liked in the JLA vs Titans mini-series was when Batman kept Huntress from telling Flamebird that she'd slept with Nightwing--I found it unexpected that Batman, at that point, actually cared about Bette's feelings.

Chris Fluit said:

Thanks, Rob.  Like you, I wasn't impressed with Goth when he first appeared.  I'm not much of a Marilyn Manson fan so that didn't help.  But he doesn't annoy me as much anymore.  I can write him off as a product of the time- kind of like Ding Dong Daddy in the Silver Age or the perms, bobs, berets and vests of the early Perez issues- and enjoy him as a snapshot in history.

...and "Part XXI"? You're gonna have a book when this is through!

I'm at 74 pages so far...

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