The Teen Titans Project, Part VII: 'Earnestly Eighties (1983)
The 1980s have a reputation for ostentatiousness. It was the era of big deals, big hair and big clothes. Peter Gabriel lampooned the prevalent attitude in his big 1986 hit Big Time. The New Teen Titans were a part of their time. Starfire’s bouffant hairdo rivaled anything you might see on Dynasty, Dallas, Bananarama or The Bangles. Yet the 1980s also have a contrasting reputation for earnestness. This was also the era of Farm Aid, Band Aid and USA for Africa. This was the decade of the After-School Special and its morals-heavy melodrama. The New Teen Titans were in tune with that aspect of the Eighties as well.
A social conscience wasn’t something entirely new for the Titans. As discussed in a previous column, they were part of DC’s “Relevance” movement in the early ‘70s with stories that examined race, urban decay and the generation gap. The current series had dealt with a few social concerns as well. Cyborg had become a role model and mentor for children with prosthetic limbs all the way back in “A Day in the Lives” (New Teen Titans #8). The Frances Kane issue (#17) featured a disturbing relationship in which Frances’ mother threw her out of the house for supposedly being a witch. And the Brother Blood epic in issues #21 and 22 touched upon the dangers of runaways and religious cults. Yet all of that was only a run-up for 1983- the year that The New Teen Titans’ social conscience took over in a way that was totally Eighties.
It started with the two-part “Runaways” story in December ’82 and January ’83 (#26-27). Marv Wolfman came up with a creative story structure. He alternated between the Titans’ homecoming after their adventures in space and vignettes of various runaways leaving home. I especially appreciated George Perez’s depiction of the Titans disembarking from the spaceship with Starfire flying overhead and Changeling kissing the ground. The runaway scenes, on the other hand, tend to be a little trite. There’s only so much you can do in a half-page scene but they unfortunately establish that After-School Special feeling. The two stories intersect when Dick and Kory witness an attempted robbery at a Broadway show. Meanwhile, Raven and Cyborg find another runaway and bring her back to the Titans Tower before finding her a place at a local shelter.
The Titans are fully involved now and District Attorney Adrian Chase enlists their help. He wants to take down a mobster who is using teenaged runaways as drug mules and henchmen. The rest of the story could have been an episode of Hill Street Blues as the Titans work with law enforcement to bust a drug deal. Wolfman does a pretty good of showing progress in the story as a couple of runaways move up the criminal ladder to full-fledged henchmen. He also adds an epilogue in which several more kids run away from home -- thereby showing that the problem is ongoing and far from simple. It’s better than your average After-School Special, though that’s kind of a backhanded compliment.
Despite the seriousness of the story, there are a couple of fun elements for Titans’ fans. Speedy shows up as a guest star, having been working as a freelance operative with the DEA. And, in a separate sub-plot, Changeling stops a young girl from destroying the Statue of Liberty -- a girl we will soon get to know as Terra.
In a way, the “Runaways” issues were only the warm up. The following month, DC published three special drug awareness issues, in cooperation with the White House as well as corporate sponsors IBM and Keebler. These are the real earnest 'eighties specials. They’re supposed to be propaganda so it’s hard to hold that against them but they’re almost painfully melodramatic. There was also some kind of licensing issue around Robin so he’s replaced without explanation by The Protector. At least Speedy sticks around as a guest star for one of the specials. They’re not very good, though they’re sort of interesting in a historical way.
The big story of the year, however, is the introduction of Terra to the New Teen Titans. After a brief cameo in “Runaways,” she takes over the story (and the cover) with issue #28. That issue is the start of an underrated four-part epic against the Brotherhood of Evil. Wolfman marvelously weaves together the strands of multiple storylines. The Titans try to prevent the Brotherhood of Evil from taking revenge on Brother Blood. Three separate candidates are considered for membership. And some of the best scenes occur away from the superhero action.
The potential new members provide some great drama. Changeling is convinced that Terra is working for terrorists against her will. He offers her a spot on the team that she promptly and gratefully accepts. Some of the other Titans are slightly more suspicious. They aren’t sure how somebody with her powers could have been kidnapped. Changeling, however, vigorously defends her. The second potential new member is actually an old one. Speedy stuck around after assisting the Titans on a couple of drug cases and he gets to play old-fashioned superhero in a battle with the Brotherhood of Evil. It’s a lot of fun to see him though he decides to head back to the DEA at the end of the arc. The third potential new member is Frances Kane, the girl with magnetic powers. Her membership is discussed more in the letters pages than in the actual story. Frances came to visit Wally West, a.k.a. Kid Flash, and it’s more likely that Wally will leave the Titans to be with her than the other way around.
The best drama, however, has nothing to do with being a superhero. After their time away, Donna is looking forward to a date with Terry Long. Unfortunately, she runs into Terry’s ex-wife who gives Terry a hard time about dating someone so young. Crestfallen, Donna heads back to her apartment. When they finally get their date, Terry apologizes for his ex-wife’s behavior. He then surprises Donna by showing her a ring and asking her to marry him. It’s an excellently crafted sub-plot, with surprising twists and strong emotions. George Perez once again demonstrates his artistry as Donna’s slumped shoulders after the canceled date and delighted face after the surprise proposal convey so much more than words.
The battles with the Brotherhood of Evil are almost an afterthought next to all of membership questions and private concerns. That’s okay with me. I find this version of the Brotherhood of Evil to be pretty boring. Warp has a bad costume and an even worse accent, and Houngan is a bad stereotype. There’s nothing particularly bad about Phobia or Plasmus, but there’s nothing particularly great about them either.
As is their habit, Wolfman and Perez follow up a longer epic with a sequence of single-issue stories. The first is one of my favorites, “Who Killed Trident?” (issue #33). It combines some of the sleuthing from “Who Is Donna Troy?” with the personal narrative of Kid Flash’s letter home. In this tale, pairs of Titans encounter a supervillain named Trident in the midst of various heists. However, other than the name and the costume, their encounters are completely different. Some insist that Trident is clever, others that he’s incompetent and still others that he had a bad cold. After hearing the stories, Starfire figures it out. The various duos fought different people wearing the same costume. As Starfire reminds the rest of the Titans, just because she doesn’t understand Earth customs, that doesn’t mean she’s dumb. The Titans promptly dispatch the two remaining Tridents, who had already murdered their partner in crime. Thus, the clever answer to “who killed Trident” is Trident.
The following one-shots again incorporate social commentary, although not as overtly as the “Runaways” or “Drug Awareness” issues. In issue #32, we meet Thunder and Lightning, twin brothers with weather powers. During the course of the story, we learn that they’re the offspring of an American serviceman who spent time in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Their plight shines light on the issue of illegitimate children left in Southeast Asia -- an issue that later will become the focal point of the 1989 musical Miss Saigon.
Issue #34 features a battle with the Terminator (he won’t complete his name change to Deathstroke until after the 1984 Schwarzenegger movie). Terra takes on the Terminator in order to prove herself to the rest of the Titans -- who still haven’t trusted her with their secret identities. The plan works. After Terra takes off for a bit of rest, the remaining Titans agree to tell her everything. At this point, Wolfman and Perez pull the rug out from under their readers: Terra has a secret meeting with the Terminator during which she reveals she’s been his spy all along and they cooked up the battle as a way to gain the Titans’ trust. It’s one of the biggest moments in comic book history: the wide-eyed ingénue is actually a traitor. Reading these comics 30 years after they were originally published, it’s easy to see that Wolfman and Perez had been dropping clues from the beginning. Raven knew all along that there was something wrong with Terra and her empathic powers make her especially good at reading people. Even so, Wolfman and Perez deserve credit for fooling the readers. The other Titans, especially Kid Flash, didn’t trust Raven and we followed their lead when we shouldn’t have.
During these one-shots, Wolfman and Perez continued playing with a couple of key sub-plots. Donna Troy didn’t immediately accept Terry’s proposal because she needed time to think about it but in issue #34, she puts on the engagement ring and officially agrees to marry him. Robin is also regularly absent from official Titans business but for a very different reason. Robin has continued to work with Adrian Chase to take down the mobster Scarapelli and his extracurricular activities are pulling him away from the Titans.
Robin’s side duties blow up at the end of issue #34 and into Annual #2. Scarapelli sets off a bomb in Chase’s apartment, killing Adrian’s wife and children. Adrian is also thought to be dead though he quickly resurfaces in Annual #2 as the Vigilante. If the Titans were supposed to be DC’s answer to the X-Men, then the Vigilante is clearly supposed to be their answer to the Punisher. Adrian Chase adopts the same war-on-crime demeanor as Frank Castle, working outside of the law in order to bring criminals to justice. However, the Vigilante doesn’t have the same appeal as the Punisher. For one thing, ‘80s fashion notwithstanding, the Vigilante’s V-neck sweater isn’t nearly as interesting as the Punisher’s skull motif. The problem is more than skin deep though. The Punisher has an interesting background as a former veteran who decides to bring the war home. The Vigilante is merely a frustrated district attorney who got tired of working within the rules. In one memorable moment, Chase complains that Scarapelli was allowed to go free, despite a textbook arrest. Well no, if it was a textbook arrest, there wouldn’t have been any problems with it. It’s almost as if Chase becomes a vigilante because he doesn’t know how to do his job. Wolfman and DC launch a new Vigilante series after this annual, which thankfully means that D.A. Adrian Chase also departs as a supporting character.
Back in the regular title, we’re treated to a Cyborg spotlight story. Vic has been avoiding Sarah Simms because he’s concerned that his work as a Titan is a danger to her. He finally decides to see her anyway in issue #35, but he unexpectedly meets someone who claims to be her fiancée. It’s not true. Mark is an old boyfriend who can’t let go and he soon takes Sarah as a hostage. The story again reveals the title’s social conscience as it touches upon issues of domestic violence. However, it also inadvertently demonstrates that the Titans’ real strength is in relationships, not social commentary, as the reunion between Vic and Sarah and the friendship between Cyborg and Changeling are the best parts of the story.
Thunder and Lightning return in a story I could do without (issue #36). They’re still trying to find their father and the Titans offer to help. However, Wolfman introduces an unexpected twist: their dad wasn’t an American serviceman after all; he was an alien. Maybe “he’s an alien” wasn’t a cliché yet in 1983 but that revelation completely undercut anything interesting about Thunder and Lightning, and has been rightly ignored ever since.
The Titans finish the year with their first inter-title crossover -- a two-part story that takes place in New Teen Titans #37 and Batman & the Outsiders #5. Crossovers occasionally feel like interruptions but this one is a perfect fit. Batman and Robin are former partners who are each leading their own team. Plus Geo-Force and Terra not only have similar earth-based powers, they’re also brother and sister. The family relationship actually adds to the weight of Terra’s as-yet-unrevealed betrayal. Her brother is a hero and that makes her fall feel even more tragic. In the basic plot, the Fearsome Five kidnap Dr. Jace and have her make mud monsters for them. Dr. Jace is responsible for Brion and Tara Markov’s powers so both teams work together to rescue her. Of course, the story is almost secondary. The real fun is watching the teams interact: Changeling once again flirts with someone from the other team (Kitty in the Uncanny X-Men crossover and Halo here) Kid Flash seeks advice from Black Lightning about being a hero, and Batman and Robin discuss their different strategies to leading a team. It’s also fun to see Perez draw classic DC characters like Metamorpho and Black Lightning and his interconnected cover is a classic in crowded composition.