04 January 2009

Teen Titans Decompressed

The superhero world loves origin stories. That may seem obvious now, but comics creators didn't originally know it. The first appearances of Superman and Batman said nothing about how those heroes had come to be, and the earliest explanations of their powers and missions were cursory. But soon Kon-El's escape from Krypton and the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents became touchstones of their characters.

After the first Crisis in the DC Comics universe, the publisher took the opportunity to modernize aspects of its most lucrative trademarks' lives. George Pérez relaunched the saga of Wonder Woman from her start on Paradise Island. Under the pen of John Byrne, Superman's adoptive parents were suddenly alive again.

The company's editors didn't think the Batman myth needed any tweaking, but its milieu needed more grit and realism. Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, published in 1987, is widely seen as a masterpiece in the superhero genre. It established a more realistic tone for the Batman series, as well as opening the door to more stylized renderings of superhero stories. That story arc, collected in a paperback, remains the model for DC's other Year One retrospectives.

One of the best Year One volumes retells Barbara Gordon's early outings as Batgirl. It reestablishes that character in Batman's post-Crisis history, adds depth to her personality, and fills out her relationships with other characters, particularly Dick Grayson as Robin. Less crucial but still interesting are Robin: Year One and Nightwing: Year One, about Dick's passages.

The latest volume of this sort is Teen Titans: Year One. It appeared in six magazines over the past year, followed by a paperback. The script is by Amy Wolfram, new to comics but the writer of some of the most popular episodes of the Teen Titans TV cartoon. The main artist is Karl Kerschl, whose style leans away from what Douglas Wolk calls the "default style of the superhero mainstream" toward a half-cartoony look.

The volume retells a handful of tales from the Teen Titans' pre-Crisis years. The first three chapters recount the team's origin: the young sidekicks must rescue their mentors from possession by a extradimensional monster called the Antithesis. (Confusingly, that story first appeared in Teen Titans, #53, the last issue of the original comic book, as a flashback.) Then there are three more chapters about the new Titans adjusting to fame, hormones, and the fact that Batman is the Worst Dad in the World. Each of those stories also reworks one of the team's adventures from the 1960s.

How does it all play out? Well, that brings me to another development in superhero comics since the early 1980s, when I last read them: "decompressed storytelling." This is an industry euphemism for spreading out a plot over more panels, pages, and issues of a magazine. The creative advantages of the decompression can include:

  • More space to develop characters and mood through more realistic pacing, dialogue, and character reactions.
  • Bigger panels to show off more detailed artwork.
But those are advantages only when the story becomes deeper, not just longer. Otherwise, decompression just lets the air out of a story and leaves it flat.

Wolfram's best use of the decompressed space is humorous interaction among the Titans. Aqualad was always a challenge for the comic's writers, for three reasons:
  • His only established powers were being able to live underwater and communicate telepathically with marine life.
  • He couldn't survive outside water for more than about an hour at a time.
  • There are only so many ways a writer can justify having the group work near water so Aqualad can join in.
Not surprisingly, Aqualad was the first charter member of the Titans to be written out of the group.

In Teen Titans: Year One, Aqualad finally has a clear role to play. Unfortunately for him, he's comic relief, particularly when paired with Kid Flash. Still, that personality's not entirely out of line with how other writers have portrayed Aqualad. (Dissenting opinion from Tegan at Bloggity-Blog-Blog-Blog.)

But I was disappointed at the lack of new facets to the other characters, and the number of questions left unresolved, even unaddressed. We see Kid Flash wishing he could be in charge of the Titans, but nothing comes of that--nor can I connect it to what I've seen of Wally West's adult personality. Some panels note the contrast between his all-American middle-class upbringing and Robin's life with a billionaire, but nothing comes of that, either.

We see Wonder Girl and Speedy go on a first date that ends poorly. But we never see any fallout from that night. Is that why Speedy doesn't stick around in the group? Does that lead to his falling-out with the Green Arrow and, eventually, his heroin addiction? The drawn-out pages offer no clues. And Wolfram steers clear of Wonder Girl's incredibly confused origin.

As in many other Teen Titans tales, one unmistakable theme is that Robin's the most dangerous one of all. He takes down Wonder Woman with no help but the distraction Kid Flash and Aqualad provide by bickering. He puts on scuba gear and wrestles Aquaman's octopus to a standstill. He defeats a villain named the Ant who's beat up all his teammates handily.

But we see only one other side of Robin's personality: bat-whipped. In contrast, Robin: Year One shows a fun-loving kid learning that there's a deadly serious side to dressing up and fighting crime, and a deadly serious crime-fighter adjusting to having a boisterous adolescent in his life. In this volume, Robin has no fun when he's with Batman, but no fun with the Titans, either. Aside from getting to be the boss, it's not clear why he likes this team.

In the final story, Robin pulls his teammates out of a graveyard in his mind, then leads the on a charge against the Antithesis. They first sound their alliterative but not-particularly-easy-to-yell battle cry, "Titans Together!" And then...nothing. No images of the fight. No signs that they've learned how to work together. No examples of how Aqualad can actually be useful. Instead, the scene shifts to Batman trying to tell Robin that he's proud, screwing up with IM, and giving up.

So what does this volume tell us about the Titans' first year? Basically, that most fourteen-year-old boys are pathetic creatures: immature, boastful, competitive, shallow. They're scared of intense feelings, prone to burping contests, and more concerned with cars than with girls. The one possible exception is, of course, Robin. And for that we needed a whole paperback?

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

I recently read JLA: Year One, another retroactive filling-out-the-origin story from DC Comics, published in 1998.

It, too, portrayed the birth of a team of five superheroes, how their personalities bumped against each other, how they adjusted to fame. It, too, worked in lots of references to old comics about that team.

But Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn, and Barry Kitson created JLA: Year One before "decompressed" storytelling took hold in superhero comics. The panels are smaller, with more word balloons and more words in them.

As a result, the twelve chapters of JLA: Year One feel like they contain four times the story of the six chapters of Teen Titans: Year One.