25 August 2013

Titans vs. X-Men

A Twitter comment from UK artist Randolph Hoyte alerted me to Chris Sims’s Comics Alliance essay on Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans. Sims is careful to note that his assessment of that magazine versus its predecessor is a matter of taste and “probably has a lot to do with reading X-Men as a kid and not getting around to The Judas Contract until I was in my 20s.”

As I’ve noted before, Sims was twelve in the 1994, and the comics we read when we’re twelve shape our tastes and memories, for better or worse. I was in my late teens when New Teen Titans was published, and hadn’t read previous versions of the team. The magazine thrilled and pleased me by doing all I’d learned to like in superhero comics and more besides. I can reread those stories and enjoy the nostalgia, but it’s next to impossible to find the same thrill in other superhero stories—and nothing’s more disappointing than picking up a story touted as “classic” and finding that it’s, well, just a superhero comic showing the traits of the time it was written.

It’s fair to compare New Teen Titans to Uncanny X-Men, Marvel’s alternate-superhero team book of the same era, as Sims does. Wolfman, Pérez, and their editor Len Wein probably did pitch their Titans revival as a possible answer to Marvel’s mutant magazine. And the X-Men issues that Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum created in the late 1970s and 1980s are top-notch.
But Sims gives more space in this essay recounting favorite moments from X-Men #132 (“Wolverine gets dropped through four floors to the sewer, then comes back at the end ready to literally murder everyone he sees”) than discussing any New Teen Titans story, for better or worse. It’s true that X-Men “feels like a product of the Modern Age,” but that’s because a big part of the “Modern Age” (at its height around, oh, 1994) was Wolverine killing lots of people. A look at The New Teen Titans should highlight its storytelling, perhaps noting some qualities that the “Modern Age” left behind.

Unfortunately, Sims’s aside about when he read “The Judas Contract” is the only time he mentions that best-remembered New Teen Titans storyline. And the only page of Wolfman and Pérez’s work illustrating the essay is one that introduces a supporting character (one whom many readers hate far more than I think is healthy). Those details indicate how glancing this assessment is.

Let’s start instead with the differences between Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans to isolate the qualities of each. Wolfman and Pérez worked with a different universe and characters, and they created a different type of superhero saga.

The Uncanny X-Men had the overall theme of being outcast. The Marvel mutants were disliked and hunted by authorities. Their headquarters was a shadowy private school in upstate New York. In contrast, the Titans were celebrities who worked with the government out of a T-shaped skyscraper on an island in the East River.

Even the Titans who felt like outcasts fit in better than almost anyone on the Marvel team. X-Men’s “demonic” character was Nightcrawler, who had a barbed tail, blue skin, and a habit of disappearing in a puff of brimstone. The Titans’ equivalent was Raven, daughter of a horrific giant four-eyed red demon who looked like…a beautiful thin girl with straight dark hair wearing a hooded cape. Cyborg had major body issues, but he was a big, handsome jock. In fact, as Pérez drew them, all the Titans looked like supermodels, and the one who was a supermodel looked like a Playboy fantasy. Being accepted and popular wasn’t their problem. Their challenges grew from their internal lives and their pasts.

The overall theme of the New Teen Titans was inheritance. All four of the established heroes were sidekicks or younger versions of adult heroes, with varied feelings about their mentors and legacies. The three new heroes were all at odds with their parents. (One was sold into slavery by her father, another crippled when his father opened an interdimensional rift, and then there’s that four-eyed giant red demon—the usual issues.) The magazine’s breakout villain, Deathstroke the Terminator, was the epitome of a toxic father. The villainous cult of Brother Blood was a corrupted reflection of the new “family” that the Titans were creating for themselves.

The best and most innovative New Teen Titans stories focus on family: the ground-breaking issue built around Wally West’s letter to his parents, Starfire’s rivalry with her sister, Changeling’s rage at the killers of his adopted mother, Donna Troy’s search for relations, Dick Grayson’s decision to move past being Robin, and even “The Judas Contract.” Those emotional issues reflect the superhero storytelling style of the early 1980s when the big fights were held together with extended melodramas full of thought balloons.

As Sims says, that sort of superhero saga might not be to everyone’s taste. Undoubtedly my own fondness for those stories is rooted in the fact that I was in my late teens when they appeared. But the best of Wolfman and Pérez’s work stands up just as well as Claremont, Byrne, and Cockrum’s, and may hit deeper emotions.


Tam B said...

Great post! I agree with your supermodels vs. outcasts argument. The Titans were very much glitzy MTV superheroes. Also, most of them were wealthy or royal or celebrities, so they had a kind of built in popularity factor that was attractive to teens reading the comic at that time. It was like having an 'in' with the superteen 'in crowd.'

I think there is more to the NTT stories than having been adolescent when they appeared, because the importance of that run is still acknowledged.

Partly, this was because the NTT was DC's legacy book. But it was also its anti-legacy book - the series in which the characters grew past their legacies. It was the one place DC has ever seriously hashed out what it meant to have A list superheroes with legacy / generational characters who were always in danger of being derivative. Unfortunately, the Didio era at DC returned the Titans to a derivative junior JLA wannabe status; then when that didn't work, TPTB erased many of the Titans' connections to the A-listers. The current nu-52 Titans mag is just a youth brand.

The 80s' NTT stories were significant because of deep stories and characterization that dealt with the whole premise on which the DCU was based. The NTT succeeded in spite of the fact that they were abandoned, abused or neglected by their elders. So in an unspoken way, the Titans stories were about the ways in which the A-list heroes failed. The central panel of all the NTT stories in that sense would be this one:


Without the Titans, all DC is is the JLA and the Trinity. The current nu-52 has erased the whole NTT continuity, but the editors have tried to steal many of the plot points and characterizations that worked in the NTT. They are trying to transfer them onto the JLA (for example, the WW-Superman ship). It's not working. And it's clear the brass do not understand why it worked with the Titans but does not work with the A-listers.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments and the link, Tam B.

As I recall, you remained a New Teen Titans fan past Crisis, which is when I stopped reading comics. As such, I didn’t see the post-Crisis relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson shown in that panel, and in other magazines. There was tension and friction, of course, but when Dick worried about telling Bruce he’d dropped out of college, it was clear that he dreaded disappointing his mentor rather than fearing physical violence.

I think Geoff Johns’s run of Teen Titans in the early 2000s was so successful because it went back to the inheritance issues. Of course, he was also checking off a lot of the highlights of the Wolfman/Pérez era: Brother Blood, Trigon, Deathstroke, etc. Using the same characters as before, as the good Devin Grayson series did, wasn’t as powerful as using the young characters who were in the same position as the originals.