With Teen Titans # 25, editor Dick Giordano immersed the series into relevancy two months before Julius Schwartz kicked off the same change in Green Lantern # 76 (Apr., 1970).
Gone were the super-villains and alien invasions. Giordano and writer Robert Kanigher had even stripped away the conventional super-hero trappings of costumes and super-powers. Instead, the new Teen Titans line-up of Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, Lilith, and the Hawk and the Dove would tackle the social problems of the day---prejudice, intolerance, corporate greed, college unrest.
Teen Titans # 26 (Mar.-Apr., 1970) opened with the Titans being tested in a survival course reminiscent of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (as if DC wasn’t trying to copy Marvel enough). Immediately afterward, Mr. Jupiter tasked them with the next phase of their training.
“ . . . There are all kinds of survival! Adaptation to environment, the ability to improvise is also important! Next phase of your training is to survive in Hell’s Corner, the toughest neighborhood in the city! You’re to find jobs---a place to live! That’s the first half of your assignment!”
When pressed for the second half, Jupiter refuses to tell them specifically. He simply tosses out something along the lines of Laura Petrie’s “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”
After changing to civilian clothes, the Titans set forth on their assignment. To finance their mission, multi-millionaire Mr. Jupiter gives them one penny apiece!
Upon reaching Hell’s Corner, the teen heroes decide to invest their six cents in refreshments from a little girl’s lemonade stand. This brings them into contact with two other elements of this particular ghetto, one of which would become a lasting part of the Teen Titans.
A local street gang, the Hell’s Hawks, barges in and---to show how despicable they are---destroys the little girl’s stand. This is meant to intimidate the newcomers. True to form, Hank Hall wants to bust their heads, but is restrained by his teammates. This leads to a quick recap of the previous issue’s events, including reminding the readers of the Titans’ new dedication to non-violence.
While the Titans stand around impotently, an angry black teen appears---Mal Duncan, teen-age brother of the little girl who was just put out of business by the Hell’s Hawks. Mal wades into the gang, but soon finds that he has bitten off more than he can chew and the punks begin to beat him savagely. Only then do the Titans act.
The junior heroes refrain from using their super-powers. Consequently, it’s somewhat remarkable that they are able to drive off hardened thugs armed with lead pipes and chains by using only “bare fists” and “explosive karate”. It’s a comic book, though, so the good guys win. Expecting a handshake and some slaps on the back, the Titans are stunned when Mal gives them the brush-off.
Things fall rapidly into place for Our Heroes, now. Wonder Girl and Lilith land jobs as salesgirls in a dress shop, while the guys find social-work positions with the local boys club. One nice touch is the fact that the personality differences between the Hall brothers are not forgotten; Hank winds up coaching boxing ---“Lead with your left! Then smash him with your right when you mean it!”---while Don teaches art. (Don probably also likes sunsets and long walks on the beach.)
What struck me most about this sequence was that you have six white individuals, from upper-middle-class backgrounds, entering a minority slum, yet feeling no self-consciousness; and they are immediately accepted by the black residents. Everybody gushed over everybody, like a family reunion.
Granted, this is the way we would like it to be---the way it should be. But it’s not human nature.
Wouldn’t the all-white Titans have felt more than a little uneasy at the prospect of living in a ghetto? And wouldn’t some, if not many, of the residents have looked upon them with suspicion and/or resentment? This wouldn’t make any of them “bad people”---just products of their experiences. It’s how both sides would overcome their initial negative reactions and find their common humanity that would truly show their basic decency.
Nor did it escape me that the one group of people in the black slum who were hostile to the Teen Titans---the Hell’s Hawks---were the only other Caucasian faces. Am I offended by this? No, of course not. But it seems that Girodano and Kanigher were reluctant to show any African-Americans in a bad light, which was sacrificing reality to make a social point. In the real world, good and evil come in all skin colours.
Now, I don’t mind morality plays, nor being shown how life should be---but I don’t like it driven into my head with a sledgehammer.
To be perfectly fair, after re-reading Teen Titans # 26 a couple more times, I found the character of Mal was depicted with the kind of nuance that I would have liked to see all around. He is a decent young man, but he is mistrustful of the Titans; he assumes that they have certain attitudes because they are white.
Soon afterward, the Titans and Mal have another run-in with the Hell’s Hawks. The bath-dodgers get sent packing, for good this time, and the lesson is driven home---people of all races can live together in harmony. In a stretch of logic worthy of Adam West’s Batman, Kid Flash figures out the second part of Mr. Jupiter’s assignment: to recruit an outsider.
And just like that, Mal is invited to join the Teen Titans.
He is put through Mr. Jupiter’s survival course and gets his own drab grey uniform.
The last few pages of the issue are a lead-in to the story in the next. The Titans are introduced to one of Mr. Jupiter’s other projects, the launching of an unmanned space probe to the planet Venus. In preparation for the next step---a manned space shot to the moon---the Titans are given subliminal training in astronautics while they sleep. (They all become fluent in Portuguese, too. No, not really, but it makes just as much sense.)
Determined to prove himself worthy to be a Teen Titan, Mal stows away on the Venus probe, so the scientists can receive human data, as well as instrument data. (Clearly, Mal didn’t think this through. Since the Venus shot was intended to be one way, proving himself worthy to be a Teen Titan in this fashion would be a rather moot accomplishment.)
In Teen Titans # 27 (May-Jun., 1970), the team, now armed with all that handy-dandy astronaut knowledge they acquired subliminally, is launched on a mission to retrieve Mal. This entails a stop-off on the moon, where Roy and Donna and Hank encounter aliens who had crash-landed there sometime before. After the kind of misunderstandings that generally result when human beings meet glowing bug-eyed monsters, this issue’s lesson is made clear---beings of all worldscan live together in harmony.
Oh, and Mal gets rescued, too.
By this issue, readers’ responses to the relevancy theme had started coming in. Interestingly, none of the letters printed were wildly in favour of the new direction, nor bitterly against it. Some were mildly praising; others expressed disappointment in the changes. Reader Bill Henley, Jr., of North Canton, Ohio, made this observation, comparing the plot of Teen Titans # 25 with that of recent changes in the Metal Men title:
“. . . [T]here is a strong similarity between the Titans’ new set-up and that of the [New Metal Men], you know. Super-group commits an accidental ‘evil’ act which turns its supporters against it; is nearly forced to disband and drop out of crime-fighting; is taken under the wing of an altruistic billionaire; and starts a new out-of-costume modus operandi.”
To which, editor Dick Giordano replied: Hey, coïncidence!
If we accept that, then it raises the question, “Why did Giordano institute such a radical change in the Teen Titans?” Part of the answer came when he offered his view of what should be happening with the Titans in the letter column of issue # 29:
Today’s young people are interested in the quickly changing world and its vast, complex problems. To have the Teen Titans trip gaily and mindlessly through each adventure would be, I firmly believe, a misrepresentation of the values and intents of the young. Though good humor will always be present, the Titans will be a bit more concerned . . . more involved.
But that doesn’t explain why making the Titans more socially aware required jettisoning their costumes and powers. For that, I think one has to take into account what was going on at DC at the time.
Fans of the day, as I was, knew there was an upheaval taking place at DC. Editors, writers, and artists who had been enjoying long runs on titles were being taken off those titles; they either shifted to other titles or vanished completely. Without the backchannels to what goes on behind the scenes that to-day’s comics fans have, we were left to just scratch our heads and wonder.
As I mentioned, Marvel Comics, and its steadily increasing fandom, was sending the message that DC just wasn’t cutting it anymore, and the suits at 909 Third Avenue were desperate to figure out what they had to do to get back on top. Marvel (to DC’s perception) had less talented artists, so DC’s artists were told to “rough up” their art. That didn’t work. Marvel writing had a more casual style, which---thanks in no small part to the Batman television show---was misinterpreted as “camp”, so DC’s writers were told to camp up their scripts. That didn’t work.
DC unleashed a flurry of changes. Formerly second-tier heroes got their own titles---like the Spectre, whose magazine limped along for ten issues, then died. Long-time series got radical refits, thus begetting “the New Wonder Woman”, “the New Metal Men”, and “the New Blackhawk Era”. The Challengers of the Unknown got new costumes and a paradigm shift from fighting super-villains to tackling the occult. Except for Wonder Woman, none of the “new, improved” titles made it past 1970.
They tried introducing unconventional super-heroes---Deadman, the Creeper, Dolphin, Nightmaster. Some, such as Deadman, received critical acclaim; but none of them seemed capable of holding onto a strong audience that translated into healthy sales.
No amount of promotion, tinkering, or innovation of DC’s super-heroes was doing the job. It must have occurred to many that, maybe, the current era of super-heroes had passed---after all, it had done so once before, back in the early 1950’s. And as if to confirm it, the only renovated DC title that was showing success was that of the non-powered, non-costumed Wonder Woman.
Now taking this hypothesis a step further, while one might expect the long-time editors at DC to be reluctant to admit that super-heroes had lost favour---after all they had been the company’s bread-and-butter for almost fourteen years, now---quite probably Dick Giordano was of a different mindset. He had been recruited from Charlton Comics and wasn’t anchored by the interia affecting veteran DC staffers. It’s easy to imagine he leapt right to the conclusion that super-heroes were yesterday’s fad.
Given that, the logic would be clear: Teen Titans is a title about a group of super-heroes, and super-heroes are on the way out; then the answer is to not make them super-heroes, anymore.
Plainly, Giordano knew exactly what direction he wanted the Teen Titans to take. However, TT fans were not as enthusiastic about that course change---at least, not according to the lukewarm comments received in the mail.
Perhaps it was this tepidness of reader response that inspired the unexpected “all engines back full” that the next two issues of Teen Titans would take. That’s the subject of the fourth---and I promise, last---part of my look at relevancy and the Teen Titans.