The Teen Titans Project, Part III: The “Relevance” Era (1970-1973)

Superheroes and comic books may seem to be synonymous sometimes but that’s not always the case.  Superheroes have waxed and waned in popularity like any other genre.  In the early ‘70s, superheroes appeared to be on the way out.  The fad had passed -- though not permanently.   Other genres -- both new and old -- like horror, science fiction and sword & sorcery, were on the rise. 

Comic book publishers responded to the changing tastes of the consumer in a variety of ways.  Some superhero titles were canceled or put on hiatus (including, famously, Marvel’s X-Men which was demoted to a reprint title at this time).  Other superheroes marched on, but to a slightly different beat.  DC introduced what came to be known as the “relevance” era.  Several of their superheroes ditched their costumes, capes and tights while addressing social issues instead of fighting supervillains. 

Wonder Woman took the lead.  She discarded her star-spangled outfit in October 1968 and partnered with an Asian mentor named I-Ching.  The Teen Titans followed suit in a classic two-part story in Teen Titans #25-26 (Feb-Apr 70).  Two other heroes would join the movement -- and define it -- that same spring when they first teamed up in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (Apr 70). 

In Teen Titans #25, the young heroes fail to prevent the assassination of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Arthur Swenson.  The Titans feel responsible for the death of a beloved figure.  They found the assassin but his gun went off when they tried to wrestle it away from him.  Dr. Swenson was shot in spite of -- or because of -- the Titans’ actions, depending on whom you ask. 

Their mentors in the Justice League of America hold them culpable.  The Teen Titans volunteer to give up their costumes as part of their punishment.  However, they sign on with a new mentor, the altruistic millionaire Mr. Jupiter, who promises to train them to address society’s problems without using their powers.  During all of this, Hawk and Dove officially join the team (they had previously been guest stars), Robin temporarily resigns (so he can go to college -- and keep his costume over in the Batman titles) and the Teen Titans are introduced to Lilith.  She becomes one of the Titans and her ESP powers are a major plot device throughout the era.

In the second part of the story (issue #26), the Teen Titans are sent to the neighborhood of Hell’s Corner where they have to find jobs and a place to live.  The two girls, Wonder Girl and Lilith, find employment in a dress shop.  The four boys -- Dove, Hawk, Kid Flash and Speedy -- volunteer at a boys’ club where they can live rent free.  They also meet Mal Duncan, a local youth whom Kid Flash recruits to join the Titans.  Mal hesitates since he doesn’t have any powers but Mr. Jupiter convinces him to tackle the obstacle course and prove that he has what it takes.

It’s a bold story -- and an even bolder change in direction.  Unfortunately, the hand of the writer is too obvious.  The Justice Leaguers are uncharacteristically judgmental in blaming the Teen Titans for an accidental death, and Lilith’s ESP powers are used as a storytelling shortcut.  Even so, it’s a riveting story as the Titans do things they’ve never done before and enter a new era.

However, I was surprised at how quickly things changed after that.  Despite the big reputation of the relevance era, the actual title quickly abandons “relevance” for other concerns.  At the end of issue #26, Mal decides to prove himself to the rest of the team by boarding an otherwise unmanned space mission.  By issue #27, they’re off in outer space fighting aliens on the moon.  I suppose it’s relevant to the era -- the Apollo moon landing was only the year before -- but it’s not the street-level social story they were supposed to engage in and that they’re inaccurately known for.  By issue #28, they’re back in costume -- though it’s supposedly a one-time only thing to help out Aqualad. 

After that, Teen Titans essentially becomes a sorcery title.  The young heroes fight witches and monsters, and fall under spells.  They still dabble occasionally in science fiction, but even their time travel story in issue #33 has them fighting a mystical sorcerer in the Middle Ages.  They don’t wear their costumes for many the stories- so at least one of the characteristics of relevance persists- but they don’t really need costumes to investigate a haunted house (#34).          

There’s also a lack of follow through on the set-up from 1970.  We never see Lilith or Wonder Girl work at their retail job again- though there is the occasional mention of their non-superhero roommate.  We never see any of the guys return to the boys’ club or mentor community kids- at least not until a similar situation is introduced by Marv Wolfman and George Perez in the early ‘80s.  It comes off as a convoluted plot to get Mal Duncan onto the team.  Once that’s accomplished, the writers ignore everything else that happened.

Even though the core title abandons relevance for sorcery stories, the Teen Titans’ reputation for relevance follows them into their guest appearances.  They infiltrate a team of teenaged terrorists for Batman in Brave and the Bold #94 (Mar 71); they get caught in a town out of time where the racist and chauvinist attitudes of the 19th century are prevalent in World’s Finest #205 (Sep 71); and they lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent the destruction of a local commune in Brave and the Bold #102 (July 1972). 

One of the interesting features of this era is the way in which Bob Haney and the other writers essentially establish a rotating cast.  There are eight full-time Titans (Robin’s leave of absence doesn’t last long) yet it’s rare that they’re all involved in the same story.  Instead, four or five different characters are assembled for each outing.  The most common grouping is Kid Flash, Lilith, Speedy and Wonder Girl -- two guys and two girls.  Mal and Robin make irregular appearances while Hawk and Dove are slowly phased out.  The rotating cast is handled quite deftly.  It gives the writers the flexibility to use the number of characters they want for each story without getting bogged down in roster details.

The Teen Titans also continue a trend introduced in the late ‘60s -- telling stories with literary or Biblical allusions.  The biggest example is the Romeo & Juliet story from Teen Titans #35-36 (Oct and Dec 71).  Lilith is possessed by the spirit of Juliet while visiting Verona and she falls suddenly and madly in love with a local Italian who is simultaneously possessed by the spirit of Romeo.  The rest of the Titans try to prevent the tragic ending, while running into opposition from a few locals who want to see it fulfilled for their own nefarious reasons.   

As I mentioned earlier, Lilith is a central character throughout this era.  Her ESP powers are often the instigation for the entire adventure and occasionally the resolution for them as well.  However, the writers are able to avoid most of the mistakes usually associated with mystical characters like Lilith.  Her ESP powers are notoriously unreliable, keeping her from becoming too powerful relative to the rest of the team.  She still needs their help to figure out her visions or, in some cases, rescue her from predicaments that she gets into because of them.  Plus, despite the ham-handed introduction, Lilith’s powers are rarely used as a storytelling shortcut or crutch. 

That isn’t to say that these are great stories.  For all of the things that are done well, the plots are often simplistic.  They’re about as sophisticated as your average Scooby-Doo adventure and I half expected a couple of the villains to utter, “I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling kids” at the end.  The stories are atmospheric, but they’re not complicated. 

On the bright side, the Teen Titans are still drawn by Nick Cardy.  He’s a bit more reserved in terms of page layout than he was during the Dimension X era but he shows off different skills by creating the moody horror atmospheres for these stories.  He’s also pretty good at making characters distinct even when they’re not wearing their costumes.  Plus, he still draws compelling covers.  The haunted river for issue #42 is one of my favorites, even if Lilith’s hair is colored wrong. 

Yet for all of the attempts at being contemporary, Teen Titans couldn’t keep afloat.  Whether they told stories “ripped from the headlines” or co-opted the characteristics of sword and sorcery titles, the Teen Titans fell out of favor and their title was suspended in 1973.  It didn’t turn out to be a permanent good-bye, but that’s for next time.             

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This era of Titans was all over the board, with characters and concepts coming and going like some sort of Mad Hatter's Tea Party--Wonder Girl's roommate, Sharon, pretty much disappears after she's used to start the "Aqualad & the Aliens" story, only to be name-checked in the Rozakis era, and then finally returns briefly for Donna's wedding.  Mal has a kid sister in his introductory story who will never be seen or mentioned after #27--hopefully, she was staying with their parents, but we never found out if they had any.  The Titans don't actually fight the aliens in #27, the cover scene to the contrary, the aliens are just sort of there, waiting for their ride--that issue also features an ominous cosmic vortex whatever that Mal is exposed to, which seemed like it should have been important, but wasn't (my own theory is that it was intended to give Mal powers, in case the team went "super" sooner than expected, but like so many other things, just got lost in the shuffle).  The shift from "Relevant" to "Gothic" took place right in the middle of the time-travel story, and was so jarring that the Gnarrk character was completely redesigned (and changed species) between issues: in #32, he was a 7 foot-plus Neanderthal, but by #33, he was a 6 foot-plus Cro Magnon!  That seems to have set the stage for his future appearances, since he's completely different characters in all of them: in #39, he both looks and talks like the X-Men's Hank McCoy (pre-furry version), but is subject to berzerker rages, and in the Titans-West, he looks like Java from Metamorpho, and talks like Ben Grimm.  Lilith gets a cousin who appears as a supporting character in Robin's solo-series for a while, despite the fact that not knowing anything about her family was one of her defining traits (on the other hand, when Terri Bergstrom tapped into Lilith's powers, she was able to manifest the same sort of powers that Mr. Esper would during the Captain Calamity story in the later 1970s revival). Oddest of all, when this era started, the JLA called the TT on the carpet for their alleged bad judgement in the Swanson case, so the next thing they do is reveal their true identities to Mr. Jupiter, a total stranger!  For that matter, in his first appearance, Jupiter makes it clear that he's recruiting the Titans for some sort of government program that he works for, but that concept is never mentioned again!  For my own amusement, I've decided that Mr. Jupiter was not a total stranger, but actually the government agent formerly codenamed The Tall Man from Aquaman #31, and the JLA had already vetted him, and his government project hit the skids because he was already on thin ice because an enemy agent named Krako (who despite what it says on the Internet, was never the Tall Man's twin brother, but a plastic surgery-created lookalike) ruined his Tall Man persona, and the fact that the Titans refused to use their powers put paid to the whole idea.  Or not.

I'm enjoying these recaps, but the comics from this era sound like they would be a chore to read.

I've never seen any of the Teen Titans comics from this era, but they sound like they were no fun at all.

Individual issues were fine, at least, as far as anything from DC's "super-heroes without costumes & powers" experiment was--it's not like the acclaimed O'Neil-Adams run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow wasn't a tad ham handed when it came to the exploration of social issues, and that's the high water mark for "Relevant" comics.  The supernatural issues tried their darnedest to be moody & atmospheric, but there was only so much they could with those sort of stories starring Robin & Kid Flash.  The random coming & going of the supporting characters and oft-wrenching change of direction were more noticeable when you read a stack of them in a sitting.  And at their very worst, still miles more fun than the "New 52" take on the Titans!

...It is true that the TT book went down in late 1972 ~ But that was two or so years beyond the vast number of DC super-hero/-related titles that went sown during 1969-70 . What kept it going over that period ?

  Was it simply the Bat connection , at least in part , with the Filmation animated Batman series/the West series showing up in syndication around 1970 (I think it was kept out of syndication til' the Filmation cartoon left the network .) ?

That's a good question--I tend to doubt that the Bat connection helped that much, as the Adam West series was followed by an "anti-camp" backlash, and while the Bat-books proper managed to escape the brunt of it by going darker and ditching (for a while) Robin, the Teen Titans had been at the vanguard of camp comics, and Robin, the very poster boy for camp, was their most recognizable member!  Yet, if the sales figures were good enough to keep going when so many other titles folded, why were there so many drastic changes in direction?  Could it be that the title had been designated as an official experiment?  With the powers that be looking for the next big thing, this could have been their "test kitchen", trying out plainclothes heroes, astronaut heroes, ghostbuster heroes, even gothic romance heroes.  Of course, that would mean that all the seemingly random changes were actually on purpose, and not just because of shifting editorial personal and the early 70s sense that super-hero comics were mostly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic...

Sounds like they were getting desperate and trying any story they could. Sort of like Supergirl's career shifting and Diana's come to think of it.

But Supergirl & Wonder Woman were/are valuable Trademarks that DC needed to keep active-- before Perez, did the Teen Titans warrent that status any more than, say, the Doom Patrol or the Metal Men?

Maybe I should clarify: while the individual Titans may have had some Trademark value (Robin is undoubtedly as valuable for licensing and such as WW & Supergirl), that value would be maintained as long as they put in prominent enough appearances in their mentors' comics (I believe that's why there was a tiny "Robin" logo appended to the "Batman" logo for years, which lead to the grammatically interesting World's Finest cover copy: "Your two favorite heroes--Superman and Batman & Robin").  It's the need to keep up the TM on the Teen Titans as a property back in the early 1970s that I wonder about.

I would think any company would "need" to keep all of its trademarks active, no matter whether those items are regarded as first-tier or not. 

Clark Kent: I've never seen any of the Teen Titans comics from this era, but they sound like they were no fun at all.

Dave Elyea: Individual issues were fine, at least, as far as anything from DC's "super-heroes without costumes & powers" experiment was--it's not like the acclaimed O'Neil-Adams run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow wasn't a tad ham handed when it came to the exploration of social issues, and that's the high water mark for "Relevant" comics.  The supernatural issues tried their darnedest to be moody & atmospheric, but there was only so much they could with those sort of stories starring Robin & Kid Flash.  The random coming & going of the supporting characters and oft-wrenching change of direction were more noticeable when you read a stack of them in a sitting. 

Dave is right.  I enjoyed these stories when I was filling out my collection and reading them for the first time.  I'd find one or two issues at a convention or some hole-in-the-wall comics shop while I was on vacation and bring them home.  There was the occasional clunker but, for the most part, I had fun reading them.  I even wondered why this era got such a bad rap with so many fans.  Then I read them all in order for the first time this year and discovered that they don't really hold up.  The Titans would embark on a new status quo and drop it after a couple of issues.  They would introduce important new ideas and not follow up on them.  They would build civilian lives for the characters and then never mention them again.  The individual issues can be fun in isolation, but they don't hold together as a unit.  It's almost an exercise in how not to establish continuity and I think the Wolfman-Perez team did a great job of learning from these mistakes and correcting them. 

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