The Teen Titans Project, Part I:
The “Ginchy Gear” Years (1964-1967)
Silver Age Teen Titans comic books are a strange animal. They’re widely beloved as some of the worst comics ever made. Yes, you read that right. They’re awful. They’re terrible. Everybody knows it. Everybody admits it. And everyone loves them for it. *
The Teen Titans were created in the mid-‘60s, in the midst of the burgeoning generation gap between baby boomers and their parents. Teen Titans comics tried to appeal to that younger generation by offering heroes their own age and acknowledging current aspects of the generational divide. But, while Titans comics may have fascinated the younger kids who were happy to read about teenaged heroes, they were woefully out-of-step in many ways.
You see, Teen Titans comics were written by adults about teens for kids -- and the adults didn’t really get what was going on. They tried their best but the result was hilariously strange dialogue, invented jargon and artificial confrontations. The kids reading the comics didn’t know any better ** -- and neither did the adults writing them. The Teen Titans proclaimed everything good as “gear” or “ginchy” and the audience went along with it.
Yet it’s the very ridiculousness of those early Titans comics that makes them so beloved. They hold nostalgic appeal for kids who read them at the time and an odd fascination for fans who came along later (like me). They’re like ‘50s B-movies. They’re so bad they’re good -- and the worse the better. In fact, the most ridiculous dialogue and most outrageous villains are the most memorable.
DC’s teen heroes first teamed up in July 1964 in The Brave and the Bold #54. They weren’t a team yet, but superhero sidekicks Aqualad, Kid Flash and Robin banded together to fight the villainous Mr. Twister. Fan response must have been positive because they returned for a second summer engagement in The Brave and the Bold #60 (Jul 65). This second adventure added Wonder Girl to the crew and gave the group their name. They had another trial appearance in Showcase #59 (Dec 65) before finally getting their own title in February 1966. Teen Titans kept a bi-monthly schedule, publishing 12 issues by the end of 1967.
Teen Titans comics weren’t all bad, of course. They contained some clever ideas and even a decent story or two. The Showcase story is one of my favorites, as it incorporates classic misdirection and then-current pop culture. It introduces a pop music trio, Two Guys and a Gal, which combines ideas from Peter, Paul & Mary, the Beach Boys and rockabilly. Bank robbers disguise themselves as the pop trio before the Titans pull the same trick on them.
I also like two of the most infamous Titans villains. Ding-Dong Daddy is one of those classic, over-the-top characters yet I appreciate writer Bob Haney’s insight that someone must make all of those supervillain vehicles like the Joker-mobile. Ding-Dong Daddy is the hot rod supplier to the super-villain set, a forerunner of henchmen trainers like Taskmaster and The Hive. The Mad Mod is another memorable character, spouting outrageous English expressions while using unsuspecting rock stars in his international smuggling scheme.
The allusions to pop culture are part of the fun as well. Wonder Girl is as awestruck by The Beatles as any teenybopper. Teen Titans adventures include surfboards, hot rods, rock music and beach parties. They also gave a nod to current events. One adventure takes place at the Olympic Games, another involves a beach rumble, and a third introduces a pirate radio station in outer space.
Early Teen Titans stories are fairly simplistic, yet they at least tried to tackle issues that are important to young people. Of course, the writer was an adult so those stories were usually written from the parental perspective. Two separate stories dealt with high school dropouts or runaways (#3 and 5) and both had pretty heavy-handed messages about heading back home and staying in school. Those aren’t bad messages, but they reflect the message parents want their kids to hear more than they do the perspective of youth.
On the other hand, Bob Haney occasionally depicted legitimate concerns of young people. The Olympic story in issue #4 featured a domineering father who lived vicariously through his son’s athletic prowess. The story is a reprimand to parents who try to choose their children’s paths for them -- though the kid in question competes anyway because parents might be misguided but they’re never entirely wrong in the DC world of the 1960s.
That Olympic story included one of the other elements that added to the fun: guest stars. Fans had been asking for new members and guest stars from the beginning. Speedy showed up in issue #4, a deliberate nod to Green Arrow’s first guest appearance in Justice League of America #4. The Titans cover even paid homage to the earlier JLA story, with Speedy standing in the same pose as Green Arrow pointing an arrow at a death trap containing the other heroes. Beast Boy -- the Doom Patrol’s kid partner -- showed up in issue #6. However, despite the many requests published in the letters pages, Supergirl never made an appearance.
The letters pages also reveal a concern that impacted most team titles at the time. It may seem odd today with the prolific line-ups that serve on some superhero teams but writers in the ‘60s insisted on keeping their teams managably small. Roy Thomas has talked about the recurring skirmishes he had with Stan Lee about the Avengers line-up. Lee thought that the perfect size for a team was four (likely because of the success of the Fantastic Four) while Thomas wanted to stretch the Avengers to five or six members.
The Teen Titans followed Stan Lee’s standard, even though they were published by a rival company. The line-up stayed at four. Speedy or Beast Boy could guest star but they couldn’t become regulars. When Speedy finally joined the team a few years later, Aqualad quietly bowed out. The editor even acknowledged this mandate in a later letter column, mentioning that they would have needed more powerful villains to pose as threats to a bigger team so they preferred to opt for the leaner line-up.
That about covers the first two full years of the Teen Titans -- the good, the bad and the so bad it’s good.
The End (For Now)
*Okay, not everyone, but what’s a little hyperbole now and then between friends?
**Or so I’ve been told. What do I know? I wasn’t there. I was born in the '70s.
The depiction of "the kids" by older writers who either can't quite capture the "voice" of younger people or who are patronizing and/or disparaging of the "youth culture" seem to have been a common phenomenon back in the 60's. I've encountered it in episodes of Gilligan's Island and The Munsters and perhaps most infamously.in the "space hippies" episode of Star Trek. I'm sure that even with the best of intentions, it's quite difficult. As (a fifty year old) someone with occasional pretensions to being able to write, I'm sure I'd have to do alot of researcch into how "kids today" actually speak before I'd attempt to replicate their "voice", perhaps more research than Haney had the time or the inclination to do.
For what it's worth, in Brave & Bold #54, the proto-Titans fought Mr. Twister, who was more ridiculous than The Weather Wizard, one of Flash's Rogue's Gallery, and the Two Guys & a Gal trio was called "The Flips"--later iterations added a fourth member, a cowboy type, to go with the original surfer, biker, & baton twirler, which seemed a bit more fair, since there were four Titans...
Really if you want to write the way teenagers talk. Drop about half of the slang, and replace it with swear words. Of course then DC or Marvel would never publish it.
Plus, you have to include random spoken abbreviations, like OMG! & LOL! Not that anyone talked that way, or swore that much, back in the 60s when these comics were published. The Titans dialog, even more now than then, forms a wacky sort of "word jazz" that's oddly entertaining.
I always consider Brave & Bold #60 to be a mini-classic. It was fun, action-packed but had a definite message. Plus the Separated Man was a weird but powerful foe who deserved a rematch!
So bad they're good? I thought they were gear!
Batgirl would have been nice on the team too, maybe even Mary Marvel though I'm not sure at that time DC had rights to the character.
By the time the TT graduated to their own series, the New Look Batman had sidelined the Betty Kane Bat-Girl, so she'd have to wait until Bob Rozakis exhumed her for the original Titans-West in TT #50, a decade or so hence. In a few years, the Barbara Gordon Batgirl debuted, but she was in her early 20s when she first showed up, and thus too old for the team. Likewise, Supergirl was a college girl by the time the Titans got their own title, and would have felt out of place hanging out with high school kids. Plus, having to deal with Wonder Girl as their most powerful member was bad enough for the boys' male egos--can you imagine if Supergirl was there too? Mary Marvel didn't come under DC's aegis until the early 1970s, in fact, if I recall correctly, the original TT series ended the month before the first Shazam series started. No doubt if the Rozakis-era Titans had lasted longer, Mary, Junior, Kid Eternity & Pinky would have had a dimensional crossover with those Titans.
I agree with your point, Chris, that “the kids reading the comics didn’t know any better.” I first read the Lee/Romita Spider-Man at a very young age, and as far as I was concerned, that was how teenagers talked! Yet older readers such as Cap (Ahem!) often comment about how unrealistic it is. YetI wouldn’t have it any other way (or the Teen Titan’s dialogue, either). Another writer whose style gets knocked frequently is Jack Kirby (not just his “teen” dialogue, either). I wish I could remember where I read (perhaps it was this board) someone complained that “Real people don’t talk like that!” to which someone else pointed out “Real people don’t Speak like Shakespeare, either.” It was then I gained a greater appreciation for Kirby’s dialogue, not because it was poetic but because it was unique. Plus I’ve read some Kirby comics re-dialogued by someone else.
I seem to have strayed somewhat from the topic of the original brief.
I think the problem with how teenagers speak is that they speak differently. Slang varies from school to school and city to city depending upon the region of the country you are in. The media can give a few standard slang terms that are generic but to use them is also to run the risk of being phony. I agree with Travis, what I heard mostly in my school was profanity and it's what I hear mostly today.
I'm 51 now, but I recall being mystifed by how some kids talked even when I was a kid myself! It really baffled me when the whole "bad means good" trope came along. Admittedly, I was an introverted geek and especially by the time I was 12 I spent my free time during recess or lunch reading books rather than playing with other kids. I read at least a couple of Teen Titans comics as a kid and recall liking them, but not nearly as much as I liked Spider-Man and the FF.
I remember when Kim Possible was first out, I watched it with my niece and her friend and neither of them liked the attempted to invent the slang that Kim was using. Once the writers stopped trying to do the series picked up for them.