More than 20 years in the making, Marv Wolfman and George Perez have finished their New Teen Titans original graphic novel. For a long time, Games was one of those lost projects that comic book fans fantasized about. But now, the Titans have defeated writer’s block, artist’s burnout, other creative obligations and a stalled-out restart. The Games are here.
“Was it worth the wait?” Anacoqui asked me after I finished reading it.
In a word, “Yes.”
“Games” is a classic Titans story. It features the familiar, favorite characters and the ideal creative team. Yet there’s more than nostalgic appeal to this graphic novel. It’s a solid story in it’s own right. It may not quite live up to “The Judas Contract,” “The Terror of Trigon” or “Who Is Donna Troy?” but it’s reasonably close.
That isn’t to say it’s a perfect story. There are a few noticeable weaknesses:
1. A Slow Start
“Games” takes a while to get going. There’s a good opening scene in which the Gamesmaster destroys an Arctic base in Greenland as his opening move against CBI agent King Faraday. But the second scene is redundant. Wolfman even repeats the line “Your Move, Faraday” at the end of it. We then see all of the villains get into place as well as each of the heroes in their private lives. The cuts between heroes and villains could build up tension, but with this many characters it takes too long to get through all of them. It would have been better if Perez had given a half page to each character. That would have created stronger contrasts, while moving the story forward at a quicker pace. Faraday doesn’t meet with the full roster of Titans until page 21. Nightwing asks the question we’re probably all thinking, “Now can we get started?”
Surprisingly, the answer to Nightwing’s question is “No.” After Faraday tells them about the Gamesmaster’s plots, the Titans initially refuse to help him. This leads to a second round in which Faraday harasses the Titans in their private lives in an effort to coerce them into helping him. The sequence doesn’t make any one look good. Faraday is a bully. And the Titans get bullied. The menace of the Gamesmaster was significant enough that the Titans could have gotten involved right away. It’s not a good sign that they needed to be coerced. But if the Gamesmaster wasn’t a significant foe, it’s not a good sign that they gave in to threats.
3. Tenuous Ties
The eight villains are supposed to be a part of one grand plot. And there are vignettes in which Dick and the rest of the Titans decipher clues that lead them to the villain’s targets. But there’s not a consistent theme among them. Are they trying to isolate Manhattan by attacking bridges and ports? Are they trying to make a statement by attacking points of interest like museums? Or is their target the Titans themselves as some of them are attacked in their personal lives? The afterword reveals that there was an original connection based on an anagram but that was discarded for being verbal instead of visual. Unfortunately, nothing replaced it and the various villain plots remained unconnected.
4. Uninteresting Villains
Wolfman and Perez created eight all new villains for this graphic novel. On the one hand, it makes for a unique story. After all, the Titans aren’t fighting the Brotherhood of Evil or Brother Blood again. On the other hand, some of the new villains are little more than ciphers. They’ve been hired to fight the Titans and that’s about all we know. They’re not all awful- and I’ll get to the good ones later- but it’s not the strongest line-up.
Wolfman and Perez started work on “Games” back in 1987 or ’88. In a lot of ways, the story feels timeless. Yet there are a couple of ways in which it feels dated. The most irritating is Gar Logan’s mullet. I know that it’s the hairstyle he had at the time. And I realize it’s a minor complaint. I get annoyed when reviewers spend too much time on hats or haircuts instead of the focusing on the heart of the story. But I don’t think anyone would have been upset if the inkers had turned it into a buzzcut.
With the weaknesses out of the way, it’s time to tell you what I liked about this story. “Games” has real strengths. Some of these strengths recall the Titans’ glory days. Others are the product of a well thought-out modernization:
Earlier, I complained about the lack of motivation for some of the villains. But the main villain, the Gamesmaster, has a great back-story. He’s a former writer who was hired by the CBI to dream up terrorist scenarios. When his warnings were ignored, the Gamesmaster went rogue. Now, he’s putting his own plots into action. It’s a wonderfully timely take on a villain. It brings the story into the post 9-11 world. Yet at the same time, it’s kind of timeless as the Titans are fighting a terrorism-inspired super-villain rather than real-life terrorists. Plus, we know that the CIA and FBI actually hire writers like novelist Brad Meltzer.
Marv Wolfman also does a great job of updating the dialogue to reflect the changes in gaming culture. There are still references to Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing. But there are also references to first-person shooter video games. If anything, games have become a bigger part of our culture than when Wolfman and Perez first dreamed this story.
2. Set in the Past, Not Stuck in It
“Games” is set in the Titans’ past. That’s part of the charm. Fans want to see George Perez draw Nightwing, Cyborg and Raven. But, unlike a lot of stories set in the past, “Games” has an astonishingly significant impact on continuity. This isn’t merely a trip down memory lane. The status quo is not the same by the end of the story and that makes “Games” a very compelling read. This is partly because the story was originally conceived in the late ‘80s. Wolfman and Perez were moving their characters forward and that’s reflected in the final tale. The result is some major changes to the Titans, their supporting cast and their setting.
3. The (Partial) Redemption of Danny Chase
Marv Wolfman acknowledges in his foreword that fans didn’t like Danny Chase. He was written to be a typical annoying teenager and that rubbed fans the wrong way (shocking, I know). But Chase was part of this story and Wolfman had to find a way to make him work. He played up Danny’s connection to the CBI. And he gave Danny a star turn when he selflessly disregards his own safety in order to save everyone else. It’s not a complete redemption of the character. He’s still annoying and his rivalry with Gar Logan makes Gar look bad. But Wolfman at least gives Danny Chase a good exit.
George Perez is a modern master and his artistry is on display on every page. There are stunning angles, like a bird’s-eye view of the Guggenheim museum. There are creative page layouts, such as a jogging scene in which Dick Grayson is alternately depicted in full color and shadow. There are the distinctive facial features and varied body types for which Perez is renowned. Perez wows us with intricate details like a mountain of skeletons. He amazes us with visual playfulness such as a villain who is made out of TV screens. Perez is one of the best, and he’s at his best in “Games.”
5. Seamless Transition from Old to New
I know that George Perez had finished drawing 70 pages back in 1988. I know that he had started up on the project again about 5 years ago before being called in to help Phil Jimenez finish Infinite Crisis. So I know that this story was drawn during three separate periods spread over more than 20 years. But I can’t tell by looking at the story. A lot of the credit has to go to the three inkers: Al Vey, Mike Perkins and George Perez himself. They create a seamless transition from one era to another so that the book has a strong, consistent look.
One of the most memorable stories in Titans’ history was their journey to Azarath. George Perez utilized a new artistic style so that the other dimension would stand out as something truly different. He skipped black ink, opting instead for a rich red color. With “Games,” Perez did it again. However, he did it differently. This time, Azarath is depicted in black and white charcoal. Once again, the artistic change conveys the sense that this is an otherworldly dimension. Plus, Perez did it by using a new trick instead of repeating an old one.
I admit that I didn’t like all of the villains. Danny Chase’s antagonist didn’t have much going for her. And Knight and Squire seemed like an odd choice for Jericho. But I did appreciate the way in which Wolfman and Perez paired the heroes up with villains who would challenge them. Cyborg, who is both man and machine, fought Mekken, who is a man inside a machine. Nightwing squared off against a fellow strategist. Raven fought a dark version of herself. And Gar Logan, the former television star and frequent comic relief, faced cartoons come to life and a villain made out of TVs. The specifically chosen villains were good foils who highlighted the heroic qualities of their opponents.
8. Heroes Helping Heroes
After setting up the individual clashes, Wolfman and Perez did a good job of avoiding the same well-worn rut. When one hero had defeated their own villain, they quickly rushed to the aid of the nearest Titan. That mentality moved the story along- the second half of the book had a much better pace than the first. It also demonstrated the Titans’ teamwork. We witnessed the creative use of powers in combination. Yet we never got the impression that some Titans were weaker than others. It was apparent than any one Titan would have defeated their specific villain in time but they were happy to rely on help.
9. The Twist
I don’t want to say too much. There should be some surprises. I will say that Wolfman and Perez do a good job of upending our expectations before the story is done.
10. The Extras
This is a hardcover original graphic novel. Like the DVD set of a television season, we expect more than the story. “Games” delivers. There’s a great foreword by Marv Wolfman, recalling what made him fall in love with the Teen Titans in the first place (mostly Nick Cardy and Wonder Girl). There’s an excellent afterword by George Perez. However, the greatest treat was the original treatment as typed up by George Perez. It was interesting to read the initial ideas, and it was informative to read Marv Wolfman’s footnotes detailing the changes from 1988 to today. It would have been nice to get a few art extras as well, like some pages comparing Perez’s initial pencils to the final inks. But there’s no question that DC did a lot to make this book feel special.