The Teen Titans Project, Part VI: 

The Year of the Titans (1982)

 

Marv Wolfman declared in a letters column at the end of 1981 that 1982 would be “the Year of the Titans.”  It may sound like the usual hype but by this time, Wolfman, Perez and their bosses at DC knew they had a huge hit on their hands.  They planned to respond by expanding the New Teen Titans’ presence with guest appearances in other titles, a crossover with another company and an additional mini-series.

The Titans’ expanded footprint kicked off in January with a guest appearance in Wonder Woman #287.  In 1982, Wonder Woman was the struggling title, so Marv Wolfman and the New Teen Titans dropped by for a one-shot story in between longer runs by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas.  It’s a very run-of-the-mill battle against Dr. Cyber but it’s a lot of fun to see Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl in action together.  The Titans are all in character, since Wolfman writes the story.  However, George Perez is definitely missed.  Don Heck is a competent, professional artist but he can’t compete with Perez’s interesting layouts or level of detail.

The next evidence of the Titans’ increased profile is the inclusion of preview books.  A year and a half earlier, this version of the Titans was introduced via a 16-page preview in DC Comics Presents.  Now, The New Teen Titans have become one of DC’s go-to titles for introducing other comics.  There’s a preview for Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew in issue #16, another for Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Night Force in issue #21, and a third for Masters of the Universe in issue #25.  The Titans continue to be DC’s hosts of choice in 1983 with a preview for Atari Force in issue #27.  In addition, Wolfman and Perez include the Omega Men as guest-stars for the Titans’ end-of-the-year epic, building interest in those characters before their own title launches the following year.  

The two biggest events arrived in the summer.  First, there is the Tales of the New Teen Titans mini-series.  The Titans’ new reputation has been built in large part on strong characterization so Wolfman and Perez provide a mini-series that focuses on the characters.  The Titans go on a camping vacation at the Grand Canyon and the newer Titans tell their stories over hot dogs and campfires.  We’re treated to important background information for Cyborg, Raven, Changeling and Starfire.  Each tale is uniquely tragic.  Cyborg's story combines urban crime, family drama and modern science.  Raven’s story reads like an ancient myth with demonic deception and sorcery.  It also increases our empathy for the Titans’ resident empath as we see her sadness and isolation up close.  Changeling’s story is deftly handled.  Wolfman provides plenty of humor as Gar Logan burns one hot dog after another while telling his tale.  And Perez provides plenty of pathos by showing the discrepancies between Gar’s version of the story and the real events.  We see how Gar’s sense of humor is often a cover for disappointment and pain.  Starfire’s story is particularly timed well.  We’re introduced to her sadistic sister, Blackfire, who will arrive in the main title the following month as the Titans’ next major villain.  George Perez creates a consistent look for the mini-series by drawing layouts and pencils for each issue yet every issue also has its own distinct identity thanks to the All-Star roster of inkers and finishers: Brett Breeding, Pablo Marcos, Gene Day and Ernie Colon.  And Marv Wolfman does a great job of developing the characters, not only through excellent exposition, but also by showing their interactions together in the camping vignettes. 

The other big event was the crossover with The Uncanny X-Men.  Fans had been salivating over a potential X-Men/Titans team-up ever since the new Titans debuted.  The two titles had a lot in common.  They were once-canceled titles given new life.  They mixed established characters like Cyclops and Robin with newer ones like Nightcrawler and Starfire.  They shared Bronze Age sensibilities in both art and storytelling.  They were critically acclaimed.  And they were the biggest hits at their respective companies. 

X-Men scribe Chris Claremont handled the writing chores and superstar Walt Simonson provided the art.  Claremont picked the biggest villains for the big event: Darkseid and the Dark Phoenix.  He also added Deathstroke the Terminator as a third villain and complicating factor.  Claremont gets to the story quickly and there’s a lot of action.  Robin fights Deathstroke, the Titans fight a Parademon, the X-Men fight Deathstroke and then everybody fights Darkseid.  Simonson does a great job of depicting forceful blows in combat.  He’s even better at designing Kirbyesque devices for Darkseid.  He’s at his best drawing huge splash pages, such as a two-page spread of The Wall and the classic pact between Dark Phoenix and Darkseid.  With all of the action, you might think there wouldn’t be room for much characterization yet Claremont deftly sneaks in revealing moments between confrontations.  For example, there’s a cute bit of flirtation between the team’s youngest members, Gar Logan and Kitty Pryde.  It’s a great story that hits all of the right notes and a wonderful reminder of how incredible both titles were at the time.  

Marv Wolfman promised a few other events in that long-ago letters column that failed to materialize -- such as crossovers with Batman and Superman.  Yet he was right that 1982 would be a major year for the New Teen Titans in terms of special projects.

Meanwhile, the main title scuffled along a little bit -- at least at the start of the year.  The New Teen Titans ended 1981 with a pair of multi-part epics, one against the Greek Titans of myth and another against the killers of the Doom Patrol, Madame Rouge and the Brotherhood of Evil.  Wolfman and Perez therefore opened 1982 with a series of single-issue stories as a counterweight.  It was a good idea.  Plus, some of the greatest Titans stories were one-shots, such as “A Day in the Lives” in 1981 and the upcoming “Who Is Donna Troy?”  Unfortunately, the execution this time around was hit or miss. 

Issue #16 placed the focus back on the Titans’ personal lives and the characters spent most of the issue out of costume.  Wally West and Raven enrolled in college, where Raven generated hostile reactions from fellow students and bemused ones from her professors.  In the main story, Starfire fell in love with someone she met through her modeling work.  The man turned out to be a spy for the HIVE but he fell for Starfire in turn and ended up betraying the HIVE instead.  It’s not as bad a story as I usually remember, but it’s not a great one either.

Issue #17 introduced Frances Kane.  She would become more important to the Titans later on, but this issue is a fairly prosaic tale in which Fran’s mother thinks she’s a witch because of her magnetic powers.  The mother-daughter relationship lacked nuance and Wolfman ignored the literary or historical allusions that could have made the story more interesting.   

Issue #19 featured the kind of story that should appeal to me, considering my interest in international mythology.  Dr. Light accidentally activated avatars of the Indian god Vishnu while robbing a museum and the Titans team up with Hawkman to stop them.  However, the Titans don’t have a personal connection to these impersonal avatars so that this comes off as a by-the-numbers team-up tale. 

The other one-shots have a more personal angle and are more interesting because of it.  Marv Wolfman and Len Wein introduced the Russian superhero Starfire way back in 1968 in the original Teen Titans #18.  In a nice bit of symmetry, they brought back the Russian Starfire for a self-contained story in The New Teen Titans #18.  It’s not usually a good idea to homage your own story as it can come across as self-congratulatory but Wolfman crafts a decent Cold War thriller.  A Russian sleeper agent is loose in New York and the Titans don’t know if Starfire is here to stop her or help her.  Kid Flash is suspicious, but the Titans agree to work with him.  Wolfman then hits us with pathos when we discover that the plague carrier was his fiancée.  It’s a welcome reminder of our common humanity that avoids the heavy-handedness of most political stories.

In issue #20, Wolfman evokes a similar feeling to the aforementioned “Day in the Lives.”  There’s a super-villain in this tale but the focus is on Kid Flash’s emotional response thanks to the narrative technique of a letter home.  Wally’s positive relationship with his supportive parents is neatly contrasted with the Disruptor’s negative relationship with his controlling father.  The narrative technique also adds a bit of flavor to this story, helping it stand out from the other one-shots.

In the second half of the year, Wolfman and Perez return to longer stories, including their biggest epic so far.  The summer story is a two-part tale against Brother Blood in issues #21 and 22.  Blood is a cult leader with ties to Zandia, the terrorist nation featured in the earlier Madame Rouge story.  I know that Captain Comics doesn’t like Brother Blood -- he’s mentioned it a number of times over the years -- but I’ve always found him to be a fascinating villain.  I was four years old when Jim Jones forced his cult to commit mass suicide in Jonestown so I’ve grown up hearing about the dark side of religious cults.  Brother Blood is that dark side personified.  He’s charismatic and manipulative.  He plays with the fears and insecurities of the young, and with the greed and ambition of mid-lifers.  The emergence of other cults over the years -- like the Branch Davidians (1993) and Heaven’s Gate (1997) -- continue to make Brother Blood a credible analogue.  Wolfman and Perez also gave Blood the added twist of being media savvy.  His plants and contacts in the news help him sway public opinion against the Titans, making him a foe they fight with their hands tied.  As for the story, I appreciate that the Titans don’t attack Brother Blood head-on at first.  They try to infiltrate his cult as civilians before Blood exposes them.  It’s a nice variation from the typical superhero slugfest and it works well with the title’s emphasis on the Titan’s personal lives. 

The Titans closed out the year with a four-part epic against Starfire’s sister Blackfire that unfolds over issues #23-25 and Annual #1.  It’s a huge story, with guest stars, goddesses, alien races, space battles and duels.  Plus it features the kind of personally invested conflict that’s at the heart of every great Titans story -- although this time it’s sister vs. sister instead of parent vs. child.  This is an excellent epic -- one of the best of their longer tales -- and it’s a great way to cap off their sophomore year.

 

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I was in and out of this, but I did think that the X-men crossover was well handled. Robin's reaction to the Titan's attacking Prof X came over well.

Thanks for the reply, Mark.  I read all of these several years after they came out (hey, I was only 8 years old in 1982).  But I agree with you that the X-Men crossover was particularly well done.  Everyone's reactions were exactly what you expect of them at the time. 

Brother Blood was an interesting case--I love his design: if he'd been played as a vampiric or demonic villain, his look would have made him a very welcome addition to the DCU.  To me, he looked dark and dangerous in exactly the way that Trigon and his baby deer antlers never did.  Unfortunately, imho, that made him the wrong guy for the also inspired "Cult leader who turns public opinion against the heroes" plot--seriously, someone who goes to that much trouble to look evil & menacing is not the best choice to claim to be a poor downtrodden clergyman, especially when his official spokeswoman openly calls herself "Mother Mayhem" (who sounds like she should have been Granny Goodness' long-lost daughter!).  Now, if the head of this cult had looked like the not-yet-introduced Azrael (the winged alien with the hots for Lilith--literally--and the storyline that went nowhere--literally), the storyline could have been so much more insidious and interesting.  I really liked the cult story, I just thought it would have been stronger if the cult leader didn't look like the result of Dracula, Satan, & the Red Skull having a threesome!  Surely someone as media savvy as Brother Blood was supposed to be would have constructed a more wholesome, media friendly public persona.

One of the high points of Marv Wolfman's Titans writing was IMO the characterization of Starfire.  It was leaps and bounds better than most in the DCU up until that point.  Wolfman really made an effort at expressing dialog that could relate to the youth of the time.

Even if it is not particularly realistic.  Somewhere in 1979 IIRC, Lilandra was struggling to remember what tea was called in the X-Men.  Starfire of course was established as having instant language acquisition, solving that hurdle.  But she also had a better grast of youth psychology than Speedy and Robin both, at least in the "spoon scene" in #29.  Unrealistic as it was, it was a fresh breath of air in a DC that even now has such a hard time with convincing and respectful characterization of women.

I picked up issue #24 off the spinner rack at the local drugstore when I was 6 years old. I could not believe how good the art was!

I really liked the cult story, I just thought it would have been stronger if the cult leader didn't look like the result of Dracula, Satan, & the Red Skull having a threesome!  Surely someone as media savvy as Brother Blood was supposed to be would have constructed a more wholesome, media friendly public persona.

Good point, Dave.  I guess I didn't mind the apparent incongruity.  On the other hand, some cults play up Satanic allusions so it isn't entirely unrealistic.  But you're right that those groups aren't also media darlings. 

Great point, Luis.  I remember one incident in particular that highlights this- though I can't remember what issue it comes from.  Starfire basically tells off Robin and a couple of the other Titans.  "I'm not stupid," she reminds them.  "I just have trouble with some of your customs."  And she's right.  She's not the bimbo that other writers sometimes portray her as. 

Luis Olavo de Moura Dantas said:

One of the high points of Marv Wolfman's Titans writing was IMO the characterization of Starfire.  It was leaps and bounds better than most in the DCU up until that point.  Wolfman really made an effort at expressing dialog that could relate to the youth of the time.

Even if it is not particularly realistic.  Somewhere in 1979 IIRC, Lilandra was struggling to remember what tea was called in the X-Men.  Starfire of course was established as having instant language acquisition, solving that hurdle.  But she also had a better grast of youth psychology than Speedy and Robin both, at least in the "spoon scene" in #29.  Unrealistic as it was, it was a fresh breath of air in a DC that even now has such a hard time with convincing and respectful characterization of women.

Is it okay if I just agree with everybody?  George Perez is simply amazing.  I'm sorry that I didn't say more about it but I didn't think I had much to add beyond what I had written in the previous article.  But, yeah, wow.  Perez draws so much detail that it's occasionally overwhelming.  Yet that detail really adds to the characters.  Look at the emotions on the covers I posted above.  You can feel Robin's concern in issue #18 and Starfire's sorrow in issue #24.  The characters simply don't seem to have the same kind of depth when they're drawn by another artist (sorry, Don Heck).  Wolfman usually gets credit for that as the writer but you can't discount Perez's contribution. 



Rich Steeves said:

I picked up issue #24 off the spinner rack at the local drugstore when I was 6 years old. I could not believe how good the art was!

When the Titan's cartoon came out I think one of the writers referred to Starfire as the 'exchange student' and I think that fitted her well.



Chris Fluit said:

Great point, Luis.  I remember one incident in particular that highlights this- though I can't remember what issue it comes from.  Starfire basically tells off Robin and a couple of the other Titans.  "I'm not stupid," she reminds them.  "I just have trouble with some of your customs."  And she's right.  She's not the bimbo that other writers sometimes portray her as. 

Luis Olavo de Moura Dantas said:

One of the high points of Marv Wolfman's Titans writing was IMO the characterization of Starfire.  It was leaps and bounds better than most in the DCU up until that point.  Wolfman really made an effort at expressing dialog that could relate to the youth of the time.

Even if it is not particularly realistic.  Somewhere in 1979 IIRC, Lilandra was struggling to remember what tea was called in the X-Men.  Starfire of course was established as having instant language acquisition, solving that hurdle.  But she also had a better grast of youth psychology than Speedy and Robin both, at least in the "spoon scene" in #29.  Unrealistic as it was, it was a fresh breath of air in a DC that even now has such a hard time with convincing and respectful characterization of women.

Honestly, I think most of the characterization that made this run golden came from Perez--certainly, it seemed to fizzle out quickly when Perez left and Wolfman was working with other artists.

Chris Fluit said:

Is it okay if I just agree with everybody?  George Perez is simply amazing.  I'm sorry that I didn't say more about it but I didn't think I had much to add beyond what I had written in the previous article.  But, yeah, wow.  Perez draws so much detail that it's occasionally overwhelming.  Yet that detail really adds to the characters.  Look at the emotions on the covers I posted above.  You can feel Robin's concern in issue #18 and Starfire's sorrow in issue #24.  The characters simply don't seem to have the same kind of depth when they're drawn by another artist (sorry, Don Heck).  Wolfman usually gets credit for that as the writer but you can't discount Perez's contribution. 



Rich Steeves said:

I picked up issue #24 off the spinner rack at the local drugstore when I was 6 years old. I could not believe how good the art was!

Yeah, George Perez is good in ways that many artists aren't.

One example was an issue that began with Cyborg, who was looking over old footage of Raven, noticing how her appearance had changed over several months, as she was being possessed by Trigon. She was becoming more and more gaunt and tired-looking. Each image of Raven was from a previous issue, with a footnote as to where it came from -- and, by glory, if you went back to those issues (and I did), you could see it! Perez was gradually, issue-by-issue, making Raven look sicker. But it wasn't noticeable, as it was happening one issue at a time.

I echo what the rest of you said about George Perez.  His artwork is at its peak here, and I agree, he doesn't get the kudos he deserves for characterization.

The team-up with the X-Men was my first exposure to Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, Changeling, and Darkseid.  I really enjoyed that book but for some reason lost to the mists of time, I didn't start picking up NTT regularly until #40.  No idea why I took so long.

I also don't have the Tales miniseries in my collection.  Now I really want it!

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