03 October 2010

Thirty Years of “Hothouse Heroes and Heroines”

Yesterday Titans Tower alerted me to ToB’s lengthy analysis of the 1980s Teen Titans, written to observe the passage of thirty years since the team’s first appearance in DC Comics Presents, #26.

(I missed that magazine at the time, but I have the first five years of New Teen Titans, purchased month by month and preserved in poly bags. Not that I plan to ever sell them.)

On her Histories of Things to Come blog, ToB argues that the New Teen Titans and subsequent storylines are a generational touchstone:

Along with [Chris] Claremont’s revamped X-men from this period, the New Teen Titans are Generation X’s superheroes. There was something in the NTT title of a latchkey generation that felt (and still feels) forgotten, overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed by their elders.

At first Gen Xers, like their parents, were seduced by the glamour of ’80s high life. But they were also the first witnesses of the private cost of that life within families. Xers were compelled to survive in Brave New social settings and develop new values to cope in Postmodern and Post-Postmodern circumstances, while riding the economic booms and busts generated by their predecessors. That’s what The New Teen Titans was all about - and it was especially about building a family in a world where families had broken down.

Later Titans titles have picked up the same themes. The Titans are a pop culture mirror held up to reveal the trials of a generation that has repeatedly absorbed the often unseen costs of Boomer-driven social change.
While focusing on “the early-to-mid 1980s as seen from a youthful point of view,” the essay actually goes deep into the storylines of the following periods. In fact, I think it ends up devoting more space to the Titans’ interrelationships of the late 1980s (leaving out Danny Chase, of course). Which, along with some other hints in the blog, makes me think that ToB is a few years younger than I am—just a few, but a significant few.

Via Twitter I recently suggested that all online rants about comics should include the date when the author was twelve, so readers can calculate approximately when he or she believes the whole field reached its peak and started to go downhill. For me that date is 1978, also about when I started reading superhero comics regularly; I laid off in 1985, with Tales of the New Teen Titans being my last monthly purchase.

ToB places a lot of emphasis on generational friction, not just in this essay but in other analyses of Boomer/Gen-X interaction. And there was definitely a youth-against-middle-age theme to New Teen Titans. But I find ToB’s take to be even more specific to her apparent age. The essay is thoughtful and well worth reading for Titans fans of all ages, as long as we keep in mind that particular perspective.

For example, ToB writes, “Unlike the Boomers, who generated the message that love could free you, Xers were inundated from early adolescence with the message that love could kill you,” seeing that reflected in the Titans. But the first public-relations campaigns about safer sex came in 1984, and they were still kept narrow by controversy. For four years the Titans’ magazine had been the sexiest that the Comics Code Authority could allow.

In The Art of the Comic Book, R. C. Harvey wrote:
Upon first looking into issues of [George] Perez’s New Teen Titans, I was struck by two aspects of his drawing style—how pretty his people looked and how copiously his detail abounded. . . . His people were statuesque hunks and glossy glamour girls, hothouse heroes and heroines cavorting in shapely perfection amid uncluttered and tastefully appointed settings.
Those Titans looked like supermodels, not just superheroes. Robin and Starfire were half-naked to start with, and the whole team spent a lot of time at their pool. Even the supposedly unattractive members looked gorgeous. There was no worry about disease when the magazine finally acknowledged what we all knew—that Dick Grayson and Koriand’r were sleeping together. Heck, they were all over each other from issue #2.


ToB said...

Hi JL,

Nice piece on my post - thank you for mentioning it. I'm not saying when I was 12 - not on your life! LOL. As for sex, I'm not denying that NTT was awash in in sexual tension, but with the exception of Dick and Kory, it was rarely resolved in good ways. And Dick and Kory have now broken up.

As for the emphasis on generational friction, the post was one of several about Generation X. In those other Gen X posts and the comments, I get into where that friction came from. I'm about to finish a phd in history, so my opinion historically on this is different than it seems. I think generational labelling and any associated so-called 'generation wars' now discussed in the media are part of a trend that goes back to the French Revolution. In that trend, people increasingly associated themselves with horizontal alignments in society (eg class, age) rather than older, hierarchical ones (eg family, religious faith). This has been discussed by legal historians who observe a change in how laws were written between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My concern about generational labelling derives from how destructive it (and any kind of group labelling) is. But in order to understand that, I am writing several pieces on how that labelling was used in the 20th century. I'm both building up a generational argument and knocking it down.

My blog is about the Zeitgeist and concepts of time at the turn of the millennium, the idea of 'the generation' being only one aspect of that. Thanks again - will enjoy following your blog.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. I want to be clear that my own take on the sexiness of the New Teen Titans reflects the fact that I read the magazine in 1980-85, and until that point it was mostly good. Not just Dick and Kory, but Donna and Terry were a happy couple, and Garth and Tula were skinny-dipping in Steve Dayton’s pool, and even Vic was being pulled out of his shell by that blonde teacher.

Raven and Wally were suffering in different ways from their uptight upbringings, and Gar’s braggadocio had brought him to grief with Tara—and really, Gar had to grow up sometime. But the rest of the team weren’t suffering any bad consequences from the milieu.

The end of my reading meant I missed the break-up of the good relationships, in some cases amidst horrible violence. Those events of the late 1980s and early 1990s might indeed have reflected the entire culture’s realization that sex could have fatal consequences once more. (Folks knew that before antibiotics as well, of course.)

Thanks for describing your doctoral work, and how it fits with (or undercuts) that Titans article. My own historical work is more narrowly focused in time and space, but I’m also interested in the status of young people within society. You’ve given me more stuff to think about.

ToB said...

Another blog to follow! - Very interesting. I didn't get into the specifics of my research (location/period), as I keep my blogging separate from my academic writing.

Sadly, you need only have read up to the end of 1985 to see the Titans at their height. It was downhill from there. A new writer and artist are coming onto the series at the end of this month. But they will have to perform miracles to get the title back to the standards of the issues you remember. I think the decline in quality relates to the decline in heroic values and archetypes, from the mid 80s to the present. I'm writing several posts on my blog arguing that post 9/11 especially these ideals are being reworked, but that no one really knows what the end result will be, not even the creators themselves.

J. L. Bell said...

I know the Titans will never be as good as they were in the early 1980s because, after all, I’m not a teenager again.

I sat out the 1990s and started exploring comics again a few years ago. I enjoyed JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative and some of Geoff Johns’s Teen Titans runs. I expect to look at Titans: Games and hope someday to catch up with “Titans Hunt.” But they all seem to be trying to catch the magic of those Wolfman/Pérez sagas.

ToB said...

The Beast Boy mini was good, as was the Technis Imperative; and parts of Johns's run were ok. The problem is that the older team no longer exists. Games will be great, but I find it hard to believe that a book with classic Titans on it couldn't be written with current themes and be just as good or better than the early Wolfman/Perez run. Winick's Outsiders run had a smattering of what the old NTT members could have become in tough new stories, yet still cool and interesting.

J. L. Bell said...

I did like much of what Judd Winick did with Outsiders, particularly in developing new characters for a more mature audience. Wolfman, Pérez, and Wein had the courage and freedom to invent all-new heroes for New Teen Titans and New Titans. Since Dan Jurgens’s 1990s experiment with an all-new team, however, the Titans appear to have all been established characters (with the half-exception of Miss Martian). And they cycle through the same old New Teen Titans villains.

Some readers find Dick Grayson’s behavior in Outsiders out of character because he’s emotionally walled off and uncomfortable. But I think that he’s uncomfortable because he’s trying to be emotionally walled off. In other words, he’s trying to act out of character, and it doesn’t work.

Anonymous said...

It's true that Winicks Outsiders was trying to show a different side of Dick Grayson, having lost friends in the "Graduation Day" farrago, he was trying to operate as team-leader whilst trying to actively NOT make friends with the team-mates. That just never worked for me, but I could see where it was going.

Winick also had characters repeatedly state that Dick was the perfect leader for a Black Ops team with a distinctly dubious heroic morality, whilst Roy was far too liberal to do any such thing, which was sort of contrary to your own nice summation of the concept of "Robin isn't evil", and Roy had actually been a "suit" for some shadier operations of the Government, operating at the behest of Sarge Steel behest and even working with the Suicide Squad (Not by choice, but he did it anyway).

And whilst I applaud the attempt to use new characters, it didn't help that most of them were walking clichés. Indigo the walking plot device, Metamorpho 2.0 (Metamorpho 1.0 plus added angst), Black Lightning's retconned in daughter (Who had promise as the official newbie but who was constantly overshadoweed by...) Grace, less of a character more of a single emotion (anger) who hit things... a lot, and of course had an enormous sex drive. (Not a problem in and of itself, but there's such a thing as subtlety, which this series lacked in spades)

Now it would be foolish to suggest that Starfire, Raven and Cyborg weren't cliche's in their own way (alien warrior princess, demon's daughter and angry young man respectively) but their interactions with existing characters fleshed them out, the Outsiders not so much.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, Winick’s Outsiders was the furthest thing from subtle. And Grace, despite her name, is a character meant to have no subtlety at all—at least on the surface. Over time I thought she and some teammates opened up a bit.

But the pacing of superhero comics these days is so much slower than in the early 1980s that it would have taken many more years to get through the same number of storylines as in New Teen Titans, and thus the same possibilities for development. Just imagine how long it would have taken the early-’80s Vic Stone to soften at today’s pace.

DC’s current staff seems wary of doing much new with Cyborg and Starfire, of letting them develop beyond where Wolfman left them. Raven got the juice of a nearly entirely new personality in the TV cartoon, which shook up her status and persona in the DC Universe, at least a bit. I’m not sure that’s for the better, but it’s something.

All that said, I’m not sure my response to the 21st-century Outsiders, Teen Titans, and Titans can ever possibly match my enjoyment of the early-’80s New Teen Titans simply because I’m not a teen anymore. (1978)

Matt Celis said...

Wow, what a pretentious article to link to.

And no, Robin and Starfire were not "all over each other" by #2. Nice selective page choice and omission of fact.

J. L. Bell said...

Folks can look at the page from issue #2, reproduced in the posting, and decide for themselves whether Robin and Starfire were being depicted as a sexy pair of young people.