The Teen Titans Project (2003-04): The Next Generation

The Teen Titans Project, Part XXIV: 

The Next Generation (2003-2004)

 

            It was bound to happen eventually.  In 2003, the founding Titans finally passed the torch to the next generation.

            For two decades, DC’s writers and editors had grappled with the problem of putting the “Teen” back in “Teen Titans.”  Marv Wolfman made the first ill-fated attempt when he added Danny Chase as the new, youngest member of the team. Wolfman tried again later when he had Arsenal recruit teen members Damage, Impulse and Terra II.  Dan Jurgens replaced the entire team with a brand-new line-up of all-new characters while Devin Grayson followed Wolfman’s second model by adding teenagers Argent and Damage to a mixed-age group.  Yet none of the youth movements caught on.  Fans were understandably loyal to the founding Titans they grew up with even as those Titans grew up and adopted new adult identities.

            That all changed in 2003 when DC blended Young Justice with The Titans to create a new generation of Teen Titans and Outsiders.  The beloved Wolfman/Perez quartet- Beast Boy, Cyborg, Raven and Starfire- teamed up with the core of Young Justice- Impulse, Robin, Superboy and Wonder Girl- to form the newest iteration of Teen Titans (the sixth, depending on how you’re counting at home).  Meanwhile, original Titans Arsenal and Nightwing shifted over to The Outsiders

But first, DC had to get the characters into position.  Judd Winick and Ale Garza were given the task of paving the way for the new titles in the three-issue mini-series Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day (July-Aug. ’03).  They fulfilled their mandate of moving the characters around, but the story itself is a mess.  There are a host of dropped plot points and disconnected vignettes.  The corporation that brings everyone together by interviewing them for a sponsorship deal is dropped halfway through the first issue and never mentioned again.  The Metal Men are attacked by a teleporting android from the future and then ignored.  Metamorpho makes an unexplained appearance, setting up his participation in The Outsiders but not in this story.  Omen (formerly Lilith) is killed in a second-issue cliffhanger but her death receives the barest attention in the next issue. 

The characterization is stronger than the plot.  There are good scenes establishing friendships- Robin and Superboy and Nightwing and Arsenal- that will be at the center of the upcoming titles.  There are also poignant scenes showing Donna mentoring Wonder Girl and confiding in Nightwing.  Then again, Donna’s key role is pivotal to the plot.  Her death at the hands of a Superman robot is the critical factor that causes both teams to disband in mourning.  The JLA/Titans mini-series that launched the previous volume was one of the best Titans stories ever.  This wasn’t the worst, but it was an inauspicious introduction to the next iteration.

The Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files & Origins one-shot (Sept. ’03) that introduced the new teams was significantly better.  Judd Winick and Geoff Johns used the standard recruiting plot but made it different and interesting by alternating between the two teams.  Arsenal forms the new Outsiders in one story while the members of Young Justice discuss getting back together in the other.  The disparate art styles between Ivan Reis and Carlo Barberi was a little jarring, though it did help distinguish the two stories.  There was also a nice, open-ended ending as Nightwing and Robin discussed their shared misgivings about serving on a new team, giving the readers a reason to check out the upcoming series.

Geoff Johns and Mike McKone launched Teen Titans with an excellent opening arc (#1-6, Sept. ’03-Feb. ’04).  “A Kid’s Game” is definitely a product of its time- a trade paperback-friendly six-issue arc with nonspecific poster covers- but Johns and McKone are two of the best at their craft and Teen Titans rises above its market-focused limitations. 

Guest artist Michael Turner provided a beautiful, classic, statuesque first cover.  McKone then used the next four covers to introduce the team, pairing a younger hero in the foreground with an older hero in the background.  Finally, McKone drew a crowded battle scene for issue six that was reminiscent of classic Perez compositions without being derivative. 

Johns’ plot was equally compelling.  He interwove several storylines that built slowly before boiling over in succession.  He also dropped hints of future stories, building interest and curiosity beyond the first arc.  The main story was obviously the formation of the team.  The deconstructed pace gave Johns plenty of room for characterization and he deftly portrayed a feeling-out process.  The heroes didn’t know each other well and some were reticent about working together.  Throughout the first arc, the heroes grew more confident in each other and in themselves.  The major turning point occurred when Bart discarded his identity as Impulse and adopted the moniker of Kid Flash.  For Bart, it was a sign that he was ready to take the superhero business seriously.  He was still irrepressibly excitable, but he now added dedicated and knowledgeable to his repertoire. 

Of course, you can’t base a story entirely on heroes getting to know each other so Johns threw multiple classic antagonists at the new team.  Deathstroke was up first.  He wanted to prevent the Titans from re-forming as a way of averting further teenage fatalities.  However, Deathstroke wasn’t averse to a few maimings to get his point across.  Johns also blended two of the Titans’ greatest enemies into a single threat.  He reintroduced a cult of Brother Blood that had taken to worshipping the demon Trigon.  The Bloods resurrected Trigon’s daughter Raven though she eventually rejected their plans for domination and rejoined the Titans instead.  Finally, Johns had the JLA keep an eye on the younger heroes, concerned about the recent deaths of Donna Troy and Omen.  The JLA eventually decided to shut the Titans down, setting up a classic conflict between two super-teams.  I found it interesting that Deathstroke and the JLA objected to the new Titans on the same grounds, though the adult heroes were eventually convinced to give the new Titans a chance.  It was a wonderfully crafted arc, building slowly to multiple pay-offs, borrowing standard tropes without being bound to them.  It was simultaneously classic and fresh.

Johns also introduced a major theme for this version of Teen Titans.  Wolfman and Perez had often played with the theme of generational conflict as the Titans fought fallen father figures like Trigon, Mento and Deathstroke.  Johns added a new twist, as the Titans wondered if their genetic heritage meant they were predisposed to evil as well.  This had always been a concern for Raven but Johns expanded the theme to include Superboy, Wonder Girl and Robin.  Superboy learned he was cloned from Lex Luthor as well as Superman.  Wonder Girl feared that she was the daughter of Ares, god of war, since he was taking an interest in her.  And Robin worried that he might become heartless and uncaring like Batman.

This may sound sacrilegious to some but Johns and McKone combined characterization, action, depth of theme and beautiful art on the Titans that hadn’t been seen since the days of Wolfman and Perez. 

The Teen Titans’ second arc wasn’t quite as cohesive as the first but it was still compelling.  Johns and his artists alternated between character studies and the rising threat of Brother Blood and Raven.  Plus, as Brother Blood once lurked in the shadows during Deathstroke’s story, Deathstroke now lingered in the background of Brother Blood’s. 

The second arc kicked off with a Teen Titans Wizard ½ issue by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis (Apr. ’04).  Deathstroke recruited his daughter- and former Titan- Rose Wilson to join his campaign against the current Titans.  Rose had been a minor character since the end of Marv Wolfman’s run but she never developed much of a personality.  That now changed as well.  Rose fell for her father’s manipulation, agreeing to serve him, and adopting the name and role of Ravager that once belonged to her brother, Grant.  It was a bad move for Rose as a person but a fascinating turn for Rose as a character, starting her on the path to becoming the most interesting of the Wilson children. 

 Back in the regular title, Johns showed what the younger Titans were doing in their respective hometowns (issue #7, Mar. ’04).  Kid Flash took down a new Kid Trickster.  Tim Drake struggled with a school essay about his career path.  Cassie Sandsmark visited Cissie and Suzie- her old friends from Young Justice, Arrowette and Secret.  And Superman gave Superboy a dog.  It was a charming story that recalled the classic “Day in the Life” (1981).  It was doubly fun since the character-focused story was drawn by guest artist- and former Titans great- Tom Grummett.    

The Titans mixed it up with the remnants of the Fearsome Five in issue #8 (Apr. ’04).  Titans’ writers had been avoiding the team’s classic villains for years, preferring to develop new threats like Dark Nemesis or borrow from the broader DCU as with Vandal Savage.  Johns took a different tack.  It’s clear he wanted this version of the Titans to feel classic (which is why I’ve overused that particular adjective) and one of the ways he accomplished that was to use the villains from the Wolfman and Perez run- Deathstroke, Brother Blood, Trigon and the Fearsome Five.  It worked for me.  It was great to see all of these old foes and Johns smartly updated them to fit the new times.   

In the next issue (#9, May ’04), Johns continued to alternate between character moments and the looming battle with Brother Blood.  He deepened the friendships of the Titans and between Kid Flash and Krypto injected a healthy dose of humor.  He also added Deathstroke and Ravager as a complicating factor- they opposed Brother Blood as much as any of them opposed the Titans. 

The Brother Blood story finally boiled over in issues #10-12 (June-Aug. ’04).  Brother Blood had successfully resurrected Raven before losing her to the Titans.   In her absence, Blood decided to resurrect an even bigger threat- her father Trigon.  Unfortunately for Blood, the ritual was only partially successful and he raised Trigon’s demon skeleton rather than the real thing.  It may have been a debacle for Blood, but it was Mike McKone’s finest hour.  McKone has a beautifully polished style.  He’s reminiscent of Tom Grummett, but a little smoother and less stylized.  His characters are gorgeous, popping off the page.  But McKone played against type by drawing the giant, ravaged, skeletal remains of the demon Trigon.  It’s one of the most enduring images from any era of the Titans, frightening and fascinating at the same time.  It’s amazing that the same artist drew a very frightened and fragile version of Raven in the next issue.  McKone may have distinctive smooth style but, with this arc, he showed the range of his ability. 

            Teen Titans finished 2004 with two shorter stories.  In the first tale (#13-15, Sept.-Nov.), the Titans are caught off-guard when a Beast Boy virus infects the local population of teenagers, unleashing a horde of shapeshifters who don’t know how to control their powers and, worse, don’t have Gar Logan’s moral core.  It’s a fun story with animals galore and a welcome message about Gar’s value as a hero.  It was also nice to see the title shift focus a little from the four younger team members to one of the veterans.  I think Johns was right to firmly establish the newer Titans as core members but I appreciated that he eventually found time for the older guys. 

            Friendships are a big part of any team of Titans whether it’s the original Fab Five, Cyborg and Changeling, or Robin and Superboy.  While the rest of the team dealt with the Beast Boy epidemic, Johns addressed changes in the Batman titles. Stephanie Brown had replaced Tim Drake as Robin so Johns included a sub-plot in which Kon’El confronts the new Robin about his missing friend.  It was a masterstroke.  The readers care about these characters so it’s important to show that they care about each as well. 

            The final story was a crossover with the Legion of Super-Heroes (#16, Dec. ’04).  Superboy has a long history with the Legion- they debuted in his eponymous title, after all.  For this story, the Legion reached into the past for Superboy’s help.  Superboy then returned for the rest of the team.  Kid Flash, a refugee from the future himself, led the Titans through time to the aid of the Legion.  They soon learned that the Legion was being attacked by multiple versions of the Fatal Five.  The story continued in Teen Titans/Legion Special (Dec. ’04).  The Legion and the Titans combined to counter the horde of Fatal Fives in an epic battle.  Co-writers Geoff Johns and Mark Waid managed to sneak in a few character spots as well such as a touching reunion between Bart and his cousin Jenni (the Legion’s XS) and then another reunion with his mom.  Ivan Reis was a guest artist for the third time and he did a great job depicting the battle’s savagery and complexity.  The Legion finally managed to defeat the Fatal Five Hundred, send the Titans home and collapse the time-stream but their victory had significant repercussions.  The Legion’s own time was rewritten in the aftermath, setting up Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s new Legion of Super-Heroes title. 

This version of the Titans had started with a messy story setting up two new titles.  At the end of 2004, they starred in yet another story setting up a new title.  However, this time, it was a great story with action, characterization, drama and a coherent plot.  It also showed how far the Titans had come in a year and a half.  They had been rescued from the rubble of their previous title to become stars capable of spinning off new titles on their own.  They hadn’t been headliners like that in 15 years.  Truly, the Johns and McKone era was off to a great start.

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Johns gets a lot of kudos for his work on Flash and Green Lantern but he did some great work on Teen Titans too.  Some of McKone's best work as well.  Now I'm in the mood to dig out my back issues.  Thanks for this article, Chris.

You're welcome, John.

This was a really solid, impressive opening for the series -- a book which I enjoyed for about two years. Unfortunately, in order to build it, Johns pulled Bart, Kon, and Cassie away from the caracterizations they were introduced with, and I think that was a great loss for DC. Maybe it's a part of growing up, but each of them went from being some of the more lighthearted characters to minor variations on the angsty teen trope. I rolled with the changes at the time, but man, I wish DC still had those original characters around these days. 

Johns gets a lot of kudos for his work on Flash and Green Lantern but he did some great work on Teen Titans too.  Some of McKone's best work as well.  Now I'm in the mood to dig out my back issues.

That reminds me- I'm a big fan of the Hawkman series that Johns co-wrote with James Robinson as well.  They didn't last long- Robinson left after issue 7 and Johns after 25- but it was a very cool series for a couple of years.

This was a really solid, impressive opening for the series -- a book which I enjoyed for about two years. Unfortunately, in order to build it, Johns pulled Bart, Kon, and Cassie away from the caracterizations they were introduced with, and I think that was a great loss for DC. Maybe it's a part of growing up, but each of them went from being some of the more lighthearted characters to minor variations on the angsty teen trope. I rolled with the changes at the time, but man, I wish DC still had those original characters around these days.

I get that, though a fair amount of that is still in the future for this series. 

I prefer Bart as Impulse than as Kid Flash- it's a lot harder to introduce a brand new character than a legacy- but I felt that Johns kept most of Bart's irrepressible joy.  There's a fun scene in which he tries to drive the Batmobile.  He gets very excited when he recognizes the Legion flight rings.  And he's equally excited when he meets up with his cousin, Jenni.  At this point, I think that Johns successfully broadened the character without losing anything.  But, yeah, a Bart who is only serious is no longer distinctive in the DCU.

I'm sure you're right -- it's been a long time since I've read those books. Bart's turn toward mopey teen is probably all due to his later horrible stint starring as the Flash, a run that leaves its stink up and down the timestream. 

The JLA eventually decided to shut the Titans down, setting up a classic conflict between two super-teams. I found it interesting that Deathstroke and the JLA objected to the new Titans on the same grounds, though the adult heroes were eventually convinced to give the new Titans a chance.

It’s interesting to me that the cover shows Batman objecting to Tim Drake being endangered as a Teen Titan after he had endangered him and his predecessors over the years.

Oh yeah- ugh!  That series was awful. 

Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:

I'm sure you're right -- it's been a long time since I've read those books. Bart's turn toward mopey teen is probably all due to his later horrible stint starring as the Flash, a run that leaves its stink up and down the timestream. 

My wife and were watching Flash, and I mentioned that Linda Park not only dated Flash in the comics, but married him. I then added that it was the third Flash, not the one we were watching. This was after a girl who is certain to become Jesse Quick had been introduced, which I also mentioned.

She responded with exasperation: "How many Flashes are there?"

I just mumbled "a lot," and let it go.

While you can make a case that Bart & Cassie "evolved" logically from the characters they'd started out as, the Johns' Superboy always seemed to me to be a completely different character than the one introduced in "Reign of the Supermen"--I didn't mind the costume change, since I've always hated the jacket & tights look (seriously, what anatomically correct man is going to dress up in spandex and then decide "Gee, I better make sure that my shoulders are covered!"--you'd think there'd be a lot more male heroes in T-shirts & jeans, or karate pants, like the Badger), but he also had a completely different body type, different personality, different origin & slightly different powers--how was this the same character at all?  The whole reason Kon-El had his so frequently mentioned tactile telekinesis power was so that he could approximate Kal-El's powers, since Kon had NO Kryptonian DNA at all, because the Project couldn't decode the alien DNA, and shot it into space so no one else could get a hold of it!  I get the dramatic potential of Connor being the genetic "love child" of Lex & Clark, but that always seemed more like Smallville fan fiction than a logical development for the Clone of Steel.

Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:

This was a really solid, impressive opening for the series -- a book which I enjoyed for about two years. Unfortunately, in order to build it, Johns pulled Bart, Kon, and Cassie away from the caracterizations they were introduced with, and I think that was a great loss for DC. Maybe it's a part of growing up, but each of them went from being some of the more lighthearted characters to minor variations on the angsty teen trope. I rolled with the changes at the time, but man, I wish DC still had those original characters around these days. 

Yeah, the new Superboy origin makes sense from a business sense -- certainly if he ever came to TV or movies, his origin would be streamlined into something like that -- but with all the changes, he really was like someone totally new. (And yeah, the costume change was a change for the better -- I liked the look when Grummett drew him, but it made no tactial sense and was really dated, to boot.

Why did DC shift to Bart from Wally? Did Wally not sell well?

Chris Fluit said:

Oh yeah- ugh!  That series was awful. 

Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:

I'm sure you're right -- it's been a long time since I've read those books. Bart's turn toward mopey teen is probably all due to his later horrible stint starring as the Flash, a run that leaves its stink up and down the timestream. 

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