The Teen Titans Project, Part XXV:
The Pay Off (2005)
Teen Titans entered its second full year on top of the world. Geoff Johns and Mike McKone had molded the older heroes of The New Teen Titans with the younger heroes of Young Justice into a successful line-up with a compelling blend of superhero action and drama. In 2005, Johns and McKone would pay off storylines that had been percolating for a year-and-a-half to two years. In between, the Titans would also become embroiled in the larger story of the DC Universe, hinting at changes to come.
The year started in the future. At the end of 2004, the Titans had embarked on an entertaining crossover with the Legion of Super-Heroes. With that adventure successfully completed, the Titans set out for home. However, the return trip didn’t go as planned. They arrived ten years ahead of the present and met their future selves in a three-part story (“Teen Titans of Tomorrow,” #17-19, Dec. ’04-Feb. ’05). Johns had toyed with the theme of the evil within throughout his tenure on Teen Titans. Wonder Girl and Superboy wondered if they were destined to become evil because of their parentage while Robin worried that he was fated to go bad because of his upbringing. The future story introduced the Titans to their greatest fear: they had indeed become villains. It was an emotionally resonant story with a great twist.
It was also a tour de force by artist Mike McKone. You wouldn’t necessarily think that McKone’s clean and shiny style would lend itself to a darker future, but he pulled it off with suitably moody scenes, off-kilter angles and a grayer palette. He also clearly defined the present and future Titans so that they were easily distinguishable. It’s not easy to be moody and clear at the same time but McKone managed it, subtly demonstrating his versatility.
When the Teen Titans finally returned to the present, they quickly became involved in the broader story of the DCU. The way you feel about the Titans of the next two years depends greatly on what you thought of the company-wide storyline that ran from Identity Crisis through Infinite Crisis. I’ll lay my cards on the table: I found it incredibly engrossing at the time. I enjoyed the relentlessness of the story as it continually moved forward. I appreciated the big stakes and heightened emotional atmosphere. And I delighted in the memorable moments.
Of course, I didn’t know all that when the Titans first dipped into Identity Crisis with “Identity Theft” (#20, Mar. ‘05). The Titans’ first foray into the larger DC narrative was a fairly simple side-plot. A couple of street punks had found Lex Luthor’s old battle armor (which had gone missing in Identity Crisis) and the Titans teamed up to take them down. The simple story structure gave Johns more room for characterization, allowing him to show changes to the Titans after their adventures in the future. Tom Grummett’s return as guest artist was excellent as always.
Teen Titans next embarked on a short crossover with Green Arrow. In Green Arrow #46 (Mar. ’05), Oliver Queen arranges for his new sidekick Mia Dearden, aka Speedy, to try out for the Titans. She passes the audition and joins the team in Teen Titans #21 (Apr. ’05). I didn’t find the first part of the story particularly enjoyable or the second part particularly memorable. Tom Fowler’s exaggerated style of art didn’t convey the emotional weight of the story. At the same time, Winick’s dialogue and characterization were overwrought. Fowler was drawing slapstick while Judd Winick was writing melodrama and it just didn’t mesh. The Johns and McKone issue of the Titans was better though not much happened. I’ll be honest- I had completely forgotten that Speedy II had even been a member of the team. She replaced Starfire, who had recently departed for Nightwing’s Outsiders, but she never made a mark after her entrance.
The Green Arrow story led directly into the Titans’ next Identity Crisis tie-in (#22-23, May-June ’05). One of the goals for Identity Crisis was to reestablish many of DC’s villains as legitimate threats after years of defeat (Grant Morrison did something similar at the outset of his JLA series). Dr. Light was one of the central villains of Identity Crisis and also an old foe of the Teen Titans. After learning of the events that kicked off Identity Crisis, Dr. Light sought revenge on the Titans. They had defeated him numerous times, either solo or as a member of the Fearsome Five, turning him into a laughingstock in the process so Dr. Light looked to reestablish his reputation by killing the Titans. It was a tense, fraught story- and Speedy played a bigger role than I remembered. Cyborg wisely called in every former Titan he could remember, resulting in one of my all-time favorite splash pages with two dozen Titans lined up to confront Dr. Light at the end of issue #22. I know that a lot of fans are still upset about Identity Crisis but the Teen Titans tie-in demonstrates the storytelling wisdom underpinning it. Dr. Light was a credible foe again and the epic battle against him in issue #23 was jaw-dropping.
The Dr. Light story was also Mike McKone’s swansong on the title. McKone brought a fun, clear style to Teen Titans that also contained surprising range and depth but #23 was his last issue. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the title was never quite as good after that.
Geoff Johns next returned to a plot that had been building for two years with the four-part “Insiders” crossover (Teen Titans and Outsiders #’s 24-25, July-Aug. ’05). The android Indigo was one of the primary foes in Judd Winick’s Graduation Day before Cyborg cleared her programming and she joined the Outsiders. That same mini-series dropped the first clue that Superboy’s human DNA came from Lex Luthor, raising the possibility that Superboy was fated to become evil. In “Insiders,” the Titans and Outsiders’ Manchurian Candidates finally turned on them. Luthor and Brainiac activated hidden instructions in Superboy’s DNA and Indigo’s programming, coopting them and forcing them to betray their teams.
This was supposed to be the big pay-off for a two-year story but it didn’t quite work for me. I found Superboy fretting about the possibility of turning evil more interesting than the betrayal itself. It also undercut Johns’ theme of the evil within by removing any element of freewill. It didn’t help that Winick and Carlos D’Anda’s Outsiders wasn’t nearly as good as Johns’ Teen Titans. I’ve enjoyed Winick’s work on other titles (most notably Green Lantern and Exiles) but it was a letdown every time he got involved with the Titans (Graduation Day, the Green Arrow crossover and now “Insiders”). Artist Matthew Clark also had the unenviable task of replacing Mike McKone. No one could have measured up (the artists who followed George Perez could empathize) and the “Insiders” story simply didn’t have the same flair of recent issues. It’s a little odd that a crossover featuring Lex Luthor and Brainiac should be underwhelming but that’s the disappointing truth.
Issue #26 (Sept. ’05) served as a coda to the “Insiders” crossover. Conner retreated to the Kents’ farm in Smallville to nurse his wounds, hurt feelings and guilty conscience. Johns had fellow Titan drop by to help Conner explore his memories and emotions. At the end, Raven encouraged Conner to remain a Titan though he opted for a temporary leave of absence.
Tony Daniel also took over as the new penciller with this issue. Daniel’s art was a little uneven at first. His earlier work at Image had demonstrated a Joe Madureira influence with sleek, angular characters but with the Titans, Daniel tried to incorporate a rounder Tom Grummett style. The result was a bit of a mish-mash that was inconsistent from one page to the next. Daniel would eventually become comfortable on the Titans (and at DC) but this issue was substandard.
Shortly after “Insiders” concluded, DC paid off another story point that had been percolating for two plus years: the return of Donna Troy. Donna’s death had been the climactic moment of the Graduation Day mini-series that led into this version of Teen Titans. However, the mini-series had already depicted Donna entering the endless battle of a Valhalla-like afterlife so readers knew it was only a matter of time before she returned. Plus, she’s incredibly popular. Comic book legends Phil Jimenez, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and George Perez- each of whom had a prior association with the Titans, Wonder Woman or both- were the creative team for DC Special: The Return of Donna Troy as writer, penciller and inker respectively. The mini-series ran for four issues from August to November 2005 and was included as part of the “Countdown to Infinite Crisis.”
Unfortunately, despite the fan’s anticipation and the series’ pedigree, the story was a mess. It seems like every author wants his shot at rewriting Donna’s origin. Jay Faerber had nobly tried to streamline things after John Byrne’s latest revision in Wonder Woman but Jimenez went ahead and complicated Donna’s backstory all over again. He re-introduced the aliens with Greek names that nobody had really missed and sent the Titans on an inter-planetary adventure. Jimenez also established that Harbinger was another dimensional variation of Donna. I remember being quite mad at the time that Jimenez messed with Donna’s backstory yet again. Now I’m just disappointed that her turn as a leading lady focused on continuity instead of her charisma.
The Donna Troy mini-series led into a second Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files & Origin special (2005). I found myself in the same place as in 2003- detesting the main mini-series but enjoying the one-shot coda. Chris Castallo and Tony Daniel provided the main action as a united line-up of Titans and Outsiders fought an amped up Wildebeest. Daniel’s art was still a bit changeable as his Outsiders resembled Tom Raney but the story was quick and full of action. J. Torres and Paco Medina provided the comic relief with a story about the Joker’s Daughter called “Who’s Your Daddy?” Medina’s art has the same bubbly qualities as Terry Dodson and was a perfect fit for this light-hearted fare. Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir and Todd Nauck provided the emotional counterpoint with a story showing Wonder Girl visiting her friend Cissie (aka Arrowette). It was good to see Wonder Girl in action and the story did a good job setting up Cassie’s eventual heartbreak over Superboy’s betrayal. Adam Beechen and Darryl Banks also provided a linking story showing Donna Troy reflecting on her life so far and her responsibilities in the upcoming crisis. All in all, it was a satisfying anthology and one of the few highpoints in the latter half of the year.
The final story of the year was a guest arc by Gail Simone and Rob Liefeld (Teen Titans #27-28, Oct.-Nov. ’05). DC was well aware of Liefeld’s reputation and teased the story with the tagline “Come on… you know you want it.” I’ll admit it: I was a Rob Liefeld fan back in the day. I loved the energy and vitality of his art on titles like New Mutants and Youngblood. However, the big surprise was that the story was more disappointing than the art. The latest Hawk & Dove guest-starred and the story focused on the two sisters so much that the Titans felt like visitors in their own title.
Teen Titans had entered 2005 on a roll and they continued their winning streak for most of the first half of the year. But a series of disappointing stories in the second half, including spin-offs and guest arcs, had robbed the title of much of its earlier luster and momentum.
I sometimes think that you've more Teen Titans comics than I've read comics.
You should see my X-Men collection.
The Baron said:
I sometimes think that you've more Teen Titans comics than I've read comics.
In whatever we're calling the DC Universe post 2011, they've dropped all the previous origins of Donna Troy. I don't know if they've explained her background yet, since I'm trade-waiting, but she comes from Themyscira.
I can live with that, if it gives her an origin I don't have an aneurysm trying to remember.
It was things like the Donna Troy situation -- just as an example of the kind of detritus that builds up in a decades-old universe -- that made me so excited about the possibilities of the New 52. The execution hasn't always worked, but with all the good continuity that got swept away, a lot of bad & overly convoluted stuff is gone too.
Maybe every 20 years they ought to launch a new Earth, with the previous one still in the multiverse somewhere for crossovers if there's demand. Have your cake and eat it too.
I think that's the way to do it in practice. I can understand the marketing need for making the previous version be "gone for good" for a while, though, to encourage people to jump on to the new one as it's the only game in town. (And should be for the first few years, in order to establish itself.) I'm glad the New 52 is starting to show the cracks in the firmament, so we have some interaction with previous continuities (in Covergence, but more importantly, in the really promising Superman: Lois & Clark.)
Back on topic, I think I dropped Johns's Titans around Identity Crisis, though I'm not sure exactly when. (I have a vague memory of the Dr. Light storyline.) I think I'd like to go back and check out the Insiders story, and see where things go from there, if I can find them cheaply. (Then again, so many books, so little time.)
I just wanted to say thankyou for another excellent entry Chris, fascinating as always.
I loved the time-travel 'of Tomorrow' aspect and the team at the time seemd good, solid and different to the Titans I'd grown up with but with some entertaining dynamics and quality art.
I lost alot of interest after the 'Return' of Donna just wasn't focussed and I think that was enough to send me elsewhere.
Thanks, Richard, and everyone else for the compliments. I enjoy writing these columns but it's gratifying to know that you enjoy them as well.
I decided to change the title for this installment. Originally, I wanted to avoid the obvious choice of "Identity Crisis" so I went with "The Pay Off" instead to reflect the culmination of two years of stories. But, after further reflection, I have to admit that "Identity Crisis" is the right title- not only for the "Identity Crisis" tie-ins, but also for the Superboy and Donna Troy developments.