From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 5 Titans of Relevancy (Part 4)

The new Teen Titans were three issues into their relevancy phase. No flashy outfits. No super-powers. No traditional super-villains. These were parables on the evils of social injustice, and editor Dick Giordano and writer Robert Kanigher had been none too subtle about the ultimate rightness of social sensitivity.

Thus, the story within Teen Titans # 28 (Jul.-Aug., 1970) was something completely unexpected.

Or, as Giordano put it in the “Tell It to the Titans” letter column---“Costumes?? Powers?? All over the place!!”

The story in TT # 28---“Blindspot”---is the first half of a two-part story. It opens with a scene of Sharon Tracy, Donna (Wonder Girl) Troy’s old roommate, seeing Something Which She is Not Meant to See and fleeing in horror.

Following this brief prologue, the focus shifts to the issue’s guest-star, Aqualad. The former TT regular arrives at the Titans Lair, hoping to find his old teammates. Instead, it is deserted. The accumulation of dust tells him that no-one has been there in weeks. The Junior Marine Marvel is concerned since he has not been able to contact any of his former teammates.

(The return of Aqualad is a welcome element of this story---not only for its nostalgic pleasure, but because he is handled in this tale, written by Steve Skeates, better than he ever was before in Teen Titans, or over in Aquaman, for that matter.)

Determined to find out what has happened to the other Titans, Aqualad locates Donna Troy’s apartment and encounters a terrified Sharon Tracy. Before they can sort things out, two thugs burst in, ready to gun them both down. Aqualad thwarts that notion. The buttonmen manage to escape, but not before the youthful hero recognises one of them as a henchman of long-time Aquaman foe, the Ocean Master. Comparing notes with Sharon, Aqualad suspects that a terrible scheme is in the works and figures he’ll need the Teen Titans’ help to stop it.

Hiding Sharon away in the Titans Lair, Aqualad tracks down Robin at Hudson University. After hearing the Sea Prince’s account, the Boy Wonder agrees to take him to the Titans, and adds tellingly, “. . . But if I were you, I wouldn’t expect very much help from them!

Meeting with the Titans at Mr. Jupiter’s estate, Aqualad tells them of his suspicions, fully expecting his old partners to suit up and take off after the Ocean Master.

Instead, they wimp out.

Stunned and outraged at the same time, Aqualad accuses the Titans of cowardice. “Chickens! Cop-outs! Sissies! You pick the word that fits!” He is so enraged that, when Robin intercedes to act as peacemaker, Aqualad decks him with a right cross.

This leads to yet another flashback of the events of Teen Titans # 25, as Wonder Girl tries to explain their recent vow of non-violence. Aqualad is sympathetic to their guilt, but being from the O.K.-you-made-a-big-mistake-but-learn-from-it-and-don’t-make-the-same-mistake-again school, he views their renunciation of their super-hero identities as so much burying their heads in the sand.

Wonder Girl insists that they are doing good work with Mr. Jupiter, now. They’re . . . um . . . selling dresses and . . . um . . . teaching art in Hell’s Corner, and, oh yeah, they went on a space mission.

They do agree to see Sharon at the Titans Lair. But even after Lilith’s extra-sensory probing of her mind reveals still more evidence that the Ocean Master is planning something truly insidious, the Titans’ response is to sit around wringing their hands and having a good cry.

(If it sounds like I am exaggerating here, I am, but only slightly.)

Aqualad angrily dismisses the whole lot of them and storms off to tackle Orm on his own.

That sequence was the story’s only nod to the series’ new theme of relevancy. The remainder of this issue and all of the next is nothing but good old-fashioned super-hero action.

Aqualad heads for the park where Sharon saw the Something Which She was Not Meant to See and gets waylaid by the Ocean Master and his henchmen. Still, the youthful hero almost manages to stop them single-handedly before a bit of bad luck brings him down. (The initiative, resourcefulness, and tactics he displays in this chapter torpedoes any notion that, out of water, the Junior Marine Marvel is a hapless hanger-on.)

When the story continues in the next issue---Teen Titans # 29 (Sep.-Oct., 1970)---the readers learn that the menace at hand ties in with recent developments in the Aquaman title, in which the Sea King defeated a tandem effort by the Ocean Master and a race of warfaring aliens to conquer the Earth. The scheme that Aqualad stumbled across is the aliens’ “Plan B”.

As I said, everything else from here on in is standard super-hero action. The Teen Titans, feeling guilty over wimping out on Aqualad, don their costumes and arrive, cavalry-like, to save the day. Orm and the aliens are no pushovers, though, and it takes most of the second issue to put paid to their evil plan. (Interestingly, the Hawk and the Dove---complete with their running “right wing vs. left wing” bickering---get a lion’s share of the action. It’s also timely, seeing as this is their last appearance as regular members of the Titans before being shipped back to Elmond, New York.)

The epilogue brings the usual resolution of the dangling plot points. Then, to Aqualad’s dismay, the other Titans insist that they broke their vow of non-violence only because the fate of the Earth was at stake. Now that the danger is past, they’re going back to social work.

“I can see that you’ve learned something from this adventure!” says Aqualad. “But the way I see it, you haven’t learned enough! “, and he walks off in disgust.

Frankly, this ending was surprising, given the way the three previous TT stories had so simplistically insisted “attention to social problems is good/non-attention to social problems is bad”. Based on that, one would have expected Aqualad to “finally see the light.” Instead, the Junior Marine Marvel sticks to his guns, and more impressively, the events of this two-parter show that Aqualad has a pretty good point.

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that this insertion of nuance and the willingness to give credence to an opposing view was a function of the fact that Steve Skeates wrote the story. Robert Kanigher could write thoughtful and incisive stories around a moral point, but he tended to paint his characters with a broad brush. And his lessons, too.

There is also the question of why, after making such a big point of taking the Teen Titans out of the usual super-hero mould, turning them into civilian-clothed social workers, did Dick Giordano suddenly release a two-part space-invasion adventure, with the heroes back in costume and “super-powering” at every turn.

A check of the letter columns in TT # 28 and 29 shows that the readers were still evenly divided on the idea of the new Teen Titans. In # 28’s letter column, Giordano even states that opinions of the readers whose letters didn’t see print were split even for and against the new emphasis on relevancy.

One argument is that Giordano was hedging his bets. That he suspected that he’d gone a bit too far in stripping away the Titans’ costumes and powers (which is probably one reason why Green Lantern was received far better when it went relevant, while TT was not). Putting the Titans back in their super-hero identities in TT # 28-9 was a way of honing and tweaking the concept.

On the other hand, there is a strong argument that Titans’ reversion to old-style super-heroing wasn’t Giordano’s idea at all. More on that in the final analysis, below.

Giordano wasn’t letting go of the theme of relevancy, though. Teen Titans # 30 (Nov.-Dec., 1970) was a morality play exposing the evils of corporate greed. For this adventure, the Titans---now Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, Lilith, and Mal---were back to being ordinary teen-agers in grey uniforms. Their assignment was to coax a donation to charity out of a business magnate infamous for his parsimony.

And Teen Titans # 31 (Jan.-Feb., 1971) tackled First Amendment freedom of speech, as the Titans dealt with a college dean who had turned to mind-controlling students to squelch campus protests. In terms of characterisation and plotting, this was an eminently throw-away tale, hearkening back to the days when the Teen Titans were stymied by the likes of Ding Dong Daddy.

And, to all intents, that was the end of the Teen Titans foray into relevancy.

With the next issue, most of the changes instituted in TT # 25 were gone. The story, “A World Gone Mad”, marked the return of Bob Haney as the series’ writer. It was a standard super-hero adventure dealing with time travel. Without in-story explanation, the Titans had resumed wearing their costumes and using their powers---despite the fact that the fate of the world not at stake and most of the junior heroes spent the issue standing around looking worried.

Mr. Jupiter was still in the picture. For this story, though, he was little more than a plot device to set up the time-travel dilemma. In subsequent issues, the Titans would still tackle missions assigned by Jupiter, but they were cases that called for super-heroes, not social workers.

Robin returned to the fold to stay, in TT # 33 (May-Jun., 1971), and with Lilith and Mal still in the picture, Titans stories tended to get a little crowded, until Haney started relying upon a “rotating participation” line-up formula, similar to what Gardner Fox had done with JLA.

The situation was especially problematic for Mal. The return to more traditional super-hero stories marginalised Mal Duncan's participation in them. Lacking the Boy Wonder's detective and leadership skills or even Lilith's elusive E.S.P. powers, normal teen-ager Mal soon became even more of a fifth wheel than Aqualad had ever been. Haney had to strain his plots to provide Mal any kind of usefulness to the team.

O.K., post mortum time. What killed the Teen Titans’ foray into relevancy? If one were to ask Dick Giordano, he would insist that it failed because he wasn’t allowed to take it far enough. He blamed editorial director Carmine Infantino’s “constant interference”. In an interview with Klaus Janson that appeared in The Creative Adventure # 2 (Jul., 1972), Giordano said, “I found I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do . . . I was headed in one direction and [DC was] headed in another direction, diametrically opposed in many cases.”

If this is so, then it might have Infantino’s tinkering which resulted in the Titans redonning their costumes and using their powers in a more conventional super-hero adventure in Teen Titans # 28-9. Sales of the Titans’ first three relevancy issues had been as lackluster as the readers’ opinions. Where Giordano’s remedy seemed to have been to distance Teen Titans even further from the conventional super-hero/team series, Infantino may have felt a return to basics was the answer, and he ordered such.

No matter whose hand was at the helm, the result was to cause the series to wobble off course. This wouldn’t please either the fans of the new, relevant Titans or those of the costumes-and-powers set, since they couldn’t be sure what kind of story the next issue of TT would bring.

From my standpoint---as a fellow who was shelling out his 15¢ on Teen Titans every other month then---the Titans’ relevancy stories were just plain boring. Comics fans don’t want to read stories about ordinary teen-age social workers. There are certain things that comics do better than any other medium, and among the foremost of those is their depiction of gaudily costumed heroes wielding fantastic powers. By removing the Titans’ costumes and powers, Giordano took away one of the things that make comics unique as a medium.

This is the one defining characteristic which, it seems to me, caused Teen Titans to wither under the influence of relevancy, while Green Lantern thrived under it. Over on GL, writer Denny O’Neil’s socially aware plots were just as simplistic and one-sided as those in Teen Titans, but he never lost sight of the fact that the lure was super-hero action. He didn’t replace standard super-hero plots with relevancy; he grafted relevancy onto them.

Giordano seemed to have overestimated the sophistication of his audience. To be sure, the comics-readers of the time were ready for stories which addressed real-life concerns---but they weren’t prepared to throw away the super-hero adventuring that attracted them to comics in the first place.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. What say you?

Views: 347

Comment by Randy Jackson on March 7, 2010 at 12:20pm
I have to agree that the 'relevance' era was pretty much a failure. It might have worked if the Titans were all non-powered teens who'd never worn costumes and didn't have fantastic powers, but I don't think people were ready to read about superheroes being non-super.

I also have to say that at least in the Silver Age, Aqualad was written much better than he ever was in the Aquaman title, at least in terms of the stories I've read.
Comment by doc photo on March 8, 2010 at 8:55am
Your analysis is spot on, Commander. DC was already losing me as a reader with the wholesale changes among their creative teams - relevancy was the final nail in the coffin. Between the influence of Neal Adams' more realistic art style and the relevant story lines, DC's books had more in common with newspaper soap opera strips than the previous era of super hero adventuring. Our favorite heroes had become Mary Worth in super hero clothing.
Comment by Patrick Curley on April 20, 2010 at 3:47pm
I'm not convinced the relevance era worked all that well at Green Lantern. Let's remember that the GL/GA stories only lasted for two years. I think "relevance" as a concept was mostly a fad, and like any other fad it had a fairly short shelf-life.
Comment by Commander Benson on April 20, 2010 at 4:23pm
Good point, Pat. You're right---in terms of staying power, GL/GA was only about a year more successful than DC's other attempts at relevance. On the other hand, GL/GA did accomplish two things . . . .

First---and I readily allow that the pertinent statistics could say otherwise, but going by the general feeling I always got a such times---I believe the Green Lantern title was vergeing on cancellation and adding the "new, liberal" Green Arrow to the magazine kept it alive at least a couple more years.

Second, GL/GA was, at least, relevance done right---at least if you go by how well it was received by the critics and, apparently, the readership. The changes to relevancy in most other DC titles at the time---making the Teen Titans ordinary kids in grey jumpsuits, giving the Metal Men human appearances, the Corinna Stark year of the Challengers---are merely footnotes, if they are remembered at all. But fans still talk about the GL/GA "hard-travellin' heroes" period. The only other change to rival that was the non-powered Diana Prince Wonder Woman era. I think what made those two ideas seem successful was not their longevity but their execution.


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