The Teen Titans Project, Part XXVIII:
DC had tried to expand the Teen Titans into a franchise before. Fans first floated the idea in the late ‘70s after Bob Rozakis introduced the Titans West but the Titans couldn’t sustain one title at the time, let alone two. DC’s first serious attempt occurred in the early ‘90s when they launched Deathstroke (1991) and Team Titans (1992). Deathstroke turned out to be a viable solo star but the Team Titans never developed a following of their own and were cancelled after two years. By 2008, the Titans were riding another crest of popularity and DC tried to expand the title into a franchise once more, adding a second title and a host of mini-series.
As with the previous attempt, I think that DC was late off the mark. The first expansion attempt occurred several years after George Perez had left the title when the main series was floundering. This second attempt also occurred after Geoff Johns had left the Titans and the main title was again struggling. Even so, this second attempt was more successful than the first, perhaps because there was finally a legitimate reason to have two Titans titles. One series focused on the younger teenaged heroes, most specifically Robin and Wonder Girl. The other series focused on the founding and classic Titans who had entered young adulthood, such as Nightwing and Starfire.
The year started with a look forward and a look back. Writer Judd Winick and artist Ian Churchill opened with the Titans East Special (Jan. ’08). The story featured a flashback to the classic Wolfman-Perez line-up before jumping forward to the present day. Vic Stone, aka Cyborg, decided to restart the Titans but, when his former teammates turned him down, he founded a new squad instead made up of former Titans allies like Hawk & Dove as well as newer heroes like Little Barda and Power Boy. A training exercise went horribly awry when an unknown assailant attacks, killing the entire team. The issue ends on that cliffhanger, promising to pick up the story in the forthcoming Titans #1 (June ’08).
I hadn’t cared for Judd Winick’s previous encounters with the Titans (Graduation Day and “The Insiders” crossover) but this issue was still disappointing. Peter Milligan had already pulled the stunt of killing off the opening line-up in Marvel’s X-Force and he did a much better job of it. Winick never gave the reader a reason to care about the characters before sending them to their demise. Instead, the story was needlessly brutal. I can’t even say that it had shock value because the story was too empty to be shocking. It was just a waste.
Meanwhile, DC entertained fans with a couple of nostalgia projects. They published the Teen Titans Lost Annual in March by Silver Age writer Bob Haney and modern artists Jay Stephens and Mike Allred. The story was set in the midst of the Silver Age with all of the zaniness that implies. The Titans rushed off to a foreign planet to rescue a kidnapped President Kennedy. The story started out a little awkwardly but it didn’t take long to get rolling. It was silly and fun and enjoyable.
DC also launched the Titans: Year One mini-series by Amy Wolfram and Karl Kerschl at this time (#1-6, Mar.-Aug. ’08). I wasn’t overly impressed with the start of the story as the adult heroes treated the teen heroes cruelly but Wolfram rescued the tale with the reveal that the adults were being emotionally manipulated and the Teen Titans had to rescue their mentors from themselves. The mini-series also moved quickly, completing an arc in the first three issues before embarking on individual stories that tied together in the remaining installments. It was another fun and enjoyable take on the young Titans and Wolfram did a great job depicting the teens, adding some color to their characterization such as a shy Aqualad and a boy-crazy Wonder Girl.
The main series started the year with a quiet character issue (Teen Titans #55, Mar. ’08). After fighting their future selves, the Titans had a lot to think about. Miss Martian wrestled with the evil white Martian side of herself. Kid Devil’s attempts at friendship with Ravager (and maybe more) were rebuffed. Wonder Girl broke up with Robin. And Blue Beetle continued to be coy about affiliating with the team. The Titans were fractured and falling apart- and it was good. Fans may say that they want to read about a team that works together and gets along but it can be pretty interesting to read about a team that’s at odds with one another and falling apart. It creates dramatic conflict, openings for villains to exploit, and increases the odds for the heroes to triumph.
Indeed, the character issue set up the next big Titans epic against the Clock King and his Terror Titans. Sean McKeever built the story gradually as the Clock King’s minions picked off the Titans one by one. After throwing an ill-advised house party, Kid Devil was kidnapped by Dreadbolt (Teen Titans #56, Apr. ‘08). Ravager fought off a squad led by Copperhead but destroyed part of Titans’ Tower in the process (#57, May ’08). And Disruptor disrupted Miss Martian’s control over her evil white Martian persona (#58, June ’08). Robin and Wonder Girl then tried to rescue their teammates from the Dark Side Club but they were hampered by a lack of cohesion and mistrust (#59-60, July-Aug. ’08). The Titans eventually triumphed but at a cost: Ravager left the Tower to accept the Clock King’s invitation to join the Terror Titans. The Terror Titans/Dark Side Club epic was really well done. I appreciated the slow boil and steadily increasing pace. I liked the character conflict as Eddie (Kid Devil) and Rose (Ravager) lost the trust of the other Titans. And I valued the introduction of new villains into the Titans’ orbit.
After the success of the Wonder Girl (2007) and Year One mini-series, DC continued to expand the Titans’ line. Raven and Cyborg each received their own mini-series in the summer of 2008 (DC Special: Raven #1-5, May-Sept. ’08 and DC Special: Cyborg #1-6, Aug.-Dec. ’08). The Raven mini, written by long-time Titans scribe Marv Wolfman and drawn by Damion Scott, was a mess. Raven received a new body from Brother Blood during the Geoff Johns era and it was retroactively decided that Raven’s new body was that of a teenager so she could go back to high school. That was kind of confusing, considering she’d been depicted older than that since her return. As for the plot, Raven kept having visions of a school shooting and set about to prevent it. Unfortunately, Wolfman kept re-capping the same vision every issue so the story never had any forward momentum. Even worse, the school shooting was a red herring as Raven had to fight a different villain so the reader’s time was doubly wasted. Scott’s art was also bad. I’m not sure if the fault belongs to the penciller or the colorist but it was often difficult to distinguish between the foreground and the background and thus often difficult to follow the story.
The Cyborg mini was marginally better. Mark Sable introduced a story in which the cybernetic technology invented by Vic’s dad had been acquired by the military. Victor therefore had to come to terms with his past while also defending Star Labs from someone with the same powers. The story was emotionally resonant as Victor dealt with old friends, his former girlfriend Sarah Charles and his feelings about his dad. It also had a fair amount of action as multiple cyborgs battled each other. However, the art was inconsistent and inferior. Multiple pencillers and inkers took turns including Ken Lashley, Jonathan Glapion, Carlos Magno, Marco Alquiza and Rebecca Buchman. Some of the artists struggled with the human side of things. For example, Sarah Charles’ look varied widely from issue to issue. The weak art dragged down an otherwise okay story.
Of course, the biggest part of the franchise expansion was the second ongoing series featuring the young adult Titans (Titans #1, June ’08). The new line-up was comprised of Arsenal, Changeling, Donna Troy, Flash, Nightwing, Raven and Starfire, plus a partially reconstructed Cyborg. Together, they reformed the Titans to track down the villain who had decimated Cyborg’s previous squad. Their search quickly led to Raven’s father Trigon and to her previously unidentified brothers. A broken down and emaciated Trigon had given his powers to his sons, who represented three of the seven deadly sins. Not surprisingly, three other brothers showed up a couple of issues later. Raven was supposed to somehow represent pride.
If you’re getting the impression that I wasn’t impressed with the opening arc (Titans #1-6, June-Dec. ’08), you’re right. I remember Captain Comics complaining that launching a new series with Trigon was a cliché when Geoff Johns did it in 2003. I disagreed at the time since Johns was the first writer to employ Trigon in an opening arc since Wolfman and Perez. It felt more like a classic homage than a cliché. But Cap would have been right in this case. It felt uninspired to use Trigon again so soon. I was also annoyed at the way Winick jumbled Trigon, a demon from another dimension, together with the seven deadly sins, part of Roman Catholic tradition in our world. The two concepts didn’t mesh and it betrayed a poor understanding of both the DC Universe and real world religion. It also made the addition of more brothers a matter of course rather than a surprise twist. Plus, it never made sense that the humble, self-effacing Raven would represent pride.
On top of all of the story problems, the new Titans title was plagued by the same problem as the Cyborg mini-series. Ian Churchill drew the opening issue, Joe Benitez took over for the next three and then Julian Lopez finished the arc. The cast of rotating artists contributed to the herky-jerky feel of the story. However, to be fair, my favorite artist of the three was Lopez so at least the series got better as it went along.
Back in the main title, Sean McKeever followed up the Terror Titans/Dark Side Club epic with a series of one-shots. Issue #61 (Sept. ’08) featured a team-up between Kid Devil and the Blue Beetle. Initially, the two heroes kept stepping on each other’s toes as they each tried to take down a foe independently. But eventually they learned their lesson and worked together. At the end of the story, Blue Beetle officially joined the Titans while Eddie upgraded his identity from Kid to Red Devil. It was a pretty standard team up with a hero-learns-a-lesson plot.
The next issue (#62, Oct. ’08) focused on Marvin and Wendy, the Titans’ Tower caretakers (and the DCU versions of the SuperFriends characters). Marvin and Wendy had been background characters for over a year, cleaning up after Kid Devil’s house party and Ravager’s booby-traps. I was initially excited by the idea that we’d get to learn more about them but I was quickly disappointed. They adopted a stray dog (named Wonder Dog, naturally) but the dog turned out to be a hellhound who mauled them. Just writing that sentence leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was another example of needless brutality, and that excessive carnage had now infected the main title. I mentioned my disgust to anacoqui and she lamented that all of DC had followed that trend in the wake of Identity Crisis. It was one decapitation or dismemberment after another and it was one of the main reasons she quit reading comics around that time. I revealed in the previous article that I was only following the Titans sporadically at this time. If that hadn’t been the case, I definitely would have dropped Teen Titans after this debacle.
The following issue featured the return of Bombshell, the One Year Later traitor (#63, Nov. ’08). Bombshell got out of prison after the guards mistakenly thought she had died and the Titans were called in to recapture her. As part of the story, we learned how Bombshell had been manipulated by her father, kicking off a potential redemption arc for Amy Allen.
The year ended with a two-part story against a new villain named Lycus (#64-65, Dec. ’08-Jan. ’09). Lycus was the son of Ares, the god of war, and he thought that he could win his father’s affection by defeating his aunt, Wonder Girl, the daughter of Zeus. Lycus was also responsible for the hellhound of issue #62 and for the attack on Belle Reve prison in issue #63. The story tried to fit with the Titan tradition of dangerous family ties but the concept was stretched a bit as Cassie had to fight her nephew, not her father. It was also a pretty straightforward fight story for two issues.
Commercially, the Titans looked to be in great shape at the end of 2008. The franchise had expanded to include two ongoing titles as well as a succession of mini-series. But, creatively, the Titans were in a troubling place. As much as I was pleased to see the classic young adult Titans in a team again, their series left much to be desired. And, as much as I enjoyed the first year of Sean McKeever’s run, the latter half of 2008 was unfortunately unoriginal and uninteresting.
It is certainly strange that Wendy and Marvin where introduced just to be brutally disposed of. What was the point?
Some reflection leads me to attempt to answer my own question.
The point may well have been immediate shock in order to suggest significance and obtain a much-pursued momentary edge in the dispute for selling copies. As you pointed out, DC was (and to a degree still is) in a particularly bloodthirsty moment of its history. It was once a big deal that the Joker attacked Barbara Gordon. Now we are to accept that Superboy Prime is killing dozens of characters who once had monthly stories, but that is just not significant enough to earn more than a single panel (sometimes not even that) before we go on for the next cheap thrill.
As editorial strategies go, I find it somewhat repulsive and self-defeating, Curiosity about what the next gross happening will only hold one's interest so far - and it will be fought off soon rather than later.
I usually avoid the question "why" because it asks me to speculate on a writer's mindset and we don't know that without asking them (or unless they answered the question at some point in an interview).
However, I will say that I find the whole thing to be misguided and counterproductive. Marvin and Wendy (and Jan and Zayna) have nostalgic appeal for a very narrow group of fans. Silver Age fans tend to dislike them because they weren't kids anymore when the SuperFriends was televised. Younger fans, let's call them millennials, don't care about M&W because the show was off the air by the time they were kids. So you're only really appealing to late Boomers and Gen Xers who grew up in the '70s. But it's not like you appease fans in the other age groups by killing them off. The older fans were already annoyed when M&W were first introduced in the comic and their later deaths didn't offset that initial attitude. Maybe it was interesting to younger fans who had no connection to M&W (I'm just speculating here) but that's part of the problem. Without creating a significant connection to the characters, their deaths don't have any emotional story impact. So it's empty shock value. And, like you, Luis, I don't see how that kind of vindictiveness holds any long-term attraction for the readers or the series.
I picked up the Wonder Dog issue assuming it was going to be some wacky retro story. After reading it I felt I'd wasted my money and haven't bought another issue. And it's not just DC. I picked up a free comic a few years ago and saw what Marvel had decided to give out free that year was a story of an animal Frankenstein creatures going around the galaxy collecting severed alien heads for Thanos. That's not the sort of thing I think they should be using to try to attract new readers.
"animal Frankenstein creatures going around the galaxy collecting severed alien heads for Thanos."
I can only wish the story in question were as awesome as the story you described. I'm sure it's disappointing and tawdry. But I've read that description over and over again, and the movie it plays in my head can't be beat.
Oh, and that Wonder Dog story is really a flashpoint -- you can count me as another person who'd dropped away from the Titans by that point, but news of this story caught my interest... and then made me sad and disappointed. Whoever this was supposed to please, it sure wasn't me.
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