03 May 2009

Robin Sits Out an Anti-Drug Campaign

In the early 1980s, the New Teen Titans was DC Comics's hottest magazine. It had characters in their late teens and very early twenties, and its creators--Marv Wolfman and George Pérez--were addressing serious issues like teenaged runaways.

As a result, the US Department of Education arranged with DC to use the Titans magazine in a drug awareness campaign. Each magazine would contain a very special letter from Nancy Reagan. Education Week announced the first magazine on 4 May 1983, and it was so popular (whether or not it was successful) that two more followed.

Within the DC universe, the Titans had a personal reason to fight illegal drugs. In 1971, Neal Adams and Dennis O'Neil had created a story in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow about Green Arrow's kid sidekick, Speedy, having a heroin habit. A habit that he kicked in a mere two issues, but still it was groundbreaking. In fact, it was so radical that the character's addiction was never mentioned in the Teen Titans magazine of the time, where Speedy also appeared.

Wolfman, who had been an ambitious young writer back then, remembered that story when he and Pérez relaunched the Titans in 1980. Readers asked what had happened to Speedy, as well as to Aqualad, another founding member left out of the new lineup. In 1981, therefore, Wolfman and Carmine Infantino collaborated on a ten-page story called “Reunion,” published in the Best of DC, #18. This quick and rather empty superhero procedural showed Speedy and Aqualad returning to work with the Titans in fighting a drug ring. It established Speedy as a government agent with a special interest in stopping drugs because of his own past.

Thus, it was easy for Wolfman to motivate a series of three drug-awareness stories to be published with government support in 1983. Once again, Speedy returned to the Titans for help taking down drug dealers. The first very special issue had art by Pérez, the second (profiled at Polite Dissent) art by Ross Andru, and the third a script by Joey Cavalieri from Wolfman's plot and art by Adrian Gonzales.

The first issue actually has an interesting structure, profiling young addicts to examine why they got into drugs, and it has that gorgeous Pérez art. The third story shows the younger brother of an addict in the first starting to take drugs himself--implying that a visit from the Titans is actually quite ineffective at discouraging drug use.

In a 1987 interview, Pérez talked about the creation of these stories:

Unfortunately, with the drug books we were dealing with so many committees, it became a much more watered-down book than it was intended to be. Marv's research on real drugs was muted by a lot of editing down. They didn't want to cause blame here, they didn't want parents to feel intimidated there; a lot of groups were kind of cross-pressuring, until the book became a watered-down version of what it was originally intended to be. Had we produced the same story strictly as a DC book, I am sure it would have been a lot more potent--and probably a lot closer to reality than the book ended up being.
And even after those committees approved the scripts, that wasn't the end of the outside pressure on these magazines.

Each special issue had a sponsor that bought lots of copies for distribution to fourth-graders, thus subsidizing the project. Keebler paid for the first, IBM the second, and the American soft drink industry ("The only good white powder from Latin America is sugar!") the third.

And that's why none of these magazine featured Robin, the established leader of the Titans. DC Comics had already licensed exclusive commercial rights to that character to Nabisco. Robin therefore couldn't appear in a magazine associated with Keebler, a competing company.

So, in a last-minute change, the DC staff came up with...the Protector!
In an interview at Titans Tower, Pérez recalled how that worked:
Dave Manak--who was editing that book--whited out the entire costuming on Robin and drew this costume they quickly designed, and renamed him The Protector. So you have The Protector doing all the Robin-type things, like flying the T-jet, and giving all the orders--and who is this guy? Every single pose he's in, that was Robin in the original pose. Anyone who has the original artwork can see all the whiteout on that Protector figure and, if you hold it up to the light, you can see Robin's costume underneath.
Only later, for an edition of Who's Who in the DC Universe, did the company come up with a backstory for the mysterious Protector (curiously giving him the same first name as the boy who replaced Dick Grayson as Robin):
Young high school student Jason Hart watched helplessly as his young cousin, Ted, slowly became a drug addict. . . . He thought that if a family member couldn't talk to Ted, maybe a Batman-type super-hero could. He adopted the guise of the Protector, seeking to help his cousin.

The masquerade backfired, however, when, through a long chain of events, Jason had to pretend to actually be a super-hero, and actually protect his cousin from drug dealers who were looking to exploit Ted.
So far as I know, that "long chain of events" has never been told, and probably never figured out. That Who's Who entry (written after Dick Grayson had given up being Robin to become Nightwing) concludes: "When the story eventually broke, it came to the attention of Nightwing, who rewarded Jason with an honorary membership in the New Teen Titans, and an intensive training course."

The Protector also appeared in a New Teen Titans anti-drug commercial produced by Hanna-Barbara. He was last seen was in a crowd in Infinite Crisis, DC's big crossover event for 2005-06. Nobody knows if he survived. Then again, nobody cares.

But here's one way for the Protector to return. Obviously, he's into protection and public-service announcements. He's got a mostly purple costume with a big bright red triangle on the front. DC could use more gay heroes. I think the Protector's got a future talking to youth about safer sex. Give the character to Judd Winick, creator of Pedro and Me, and let's see what happens!


Anonymous said...

I believe that since then Nabisco have since gone on record to say that had anyone actually approached them for permission to use Robin in the anti-drug issue they would happily have given permission, since it was a not-for profit charity thing with White House endorsement.

And Protector NEARLY joined Gar Logan's proposed Titans West a few years back, he was one of the few at the recruitment drive (ie beer and pizzas) Gar threw to actually stick around long enough to help deal with an attack by Duella "Joker's Daughter/Harlequin" Dent. Alas the team never went further than that abortive recruitment drive.

Nathan said...

"At this point in her life, drugs were more important to Anna than anything else, when what SHOULD have been important to her was delicious Pecan Sandies and Vienna Fingers!"

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting report about Nabisco. Indeed, the “don’t take drugs” message is one no corporation would have wanted to stand in the way of.

I’ve heard about Garfield Logan trying to start a Titans West, but haven’t found that tale yet. With all due respect to Gar, whom I love like an annoying little brother and who throws a mean wedding, I wouldn’t choose him as a leader for anything.

As I recall, Gar’s tenure as acting leader of the current Titans lasted about two panels, from the moment Vic passed on the mantle to the moment the second Jason Todd felled them both with sedative darts.