27 September 2009

The Legend of Jericho and the Teen Titans

This is one of the more dramatic and less flattering Robin images of recent years, drawn specially for the cover of DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams, vol. 1, the latest in a series of hardcover reprints of Adams’s artwork for DC Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Earlier volumes covered Adams’s ground-breaking work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Deadman, and Batman (including the Batman/Teen Titans crossover, “Punish Not My Evil Son!”, a precursor to today’s storyline of Bruce Wayne suddenly acquiring a son of questionable morals).

In this volume DC leaves no barrel unscraped by assembling a miscellany of Adams’s superhero and war stories, including three issues from the Teen Titans in 1969. The story behind those issues is actually more interesting than the story they tell. The backstage drama appears in Adams’s introduction to this book and in the interviews in The Titans Companion, volume 1, by Glen Cadigan.

At the time, Adams was among the younger creators at DC Comics, pushing the company to make its magazines both technically better and more socially relevant. People came to see him as a mentor and advocate of a couple of even younger writers, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein.

In late 1968 they scripted an issue of Teen Titans that team introduced a not unsympathetic Soviet superhero—a daring move at the time. And they had an even more daring idea for their next assignment.

As Marv Wolfman told Cadigan:

We met with [editor] Dick Giordano, and told him our idea of a gang, a black super-hero, and of a fairly straightforward type of story, closer to what we were seeing in Spider-Man, but with the Teen Titans. We came up with a black character because DC didn't have any at the time. . . .

Dick liked the story concept, but knew that there could be some problems because of the time period, and brought us into Irwin Donenfeld’s [office], who I guess was the Vice-President; I forget the exact title. We met with Irwin for maybe fifteen minutes at most. Irwin said he really wanted us to try to do this, try to make it a multi-parter—which, in itself, was incredibly exciting—to really be powerful and very street and very authentic, and try to get down and dirty, get a lot grittier. . . .

A couple of weeks later we came back, and at that point Irwin had left and there was a new person in charge. Whatever the reasons were, because there are so many differences of opinions on this, the story got dropped. Whether it was actually because it was a bad story, or whether it was because of some other reasons, I don’t know.
Actually, the DC editorial team was aghast at what Wolfman and Wein had delivered. They were probably prepared for Jericho to be DC’s first black hero (as Marvel had already introduced Black Panther and Falcon), but the young writers had gone really “down and dirty.” Giordano recalled:
Len and Marv came back with a story that everyone but me, evidently, thought was too preachy in its approach to the race problem. Carmine [Infantino] brought the lettered pencils that he may have had on his desk to design a cover and threw it on my desk, rejecting it! It was already a tad late and there was no way of my replacing it on time. But for Neal Adams!
And Adams picks up the tale:
Not only was it a black character, but it was a black character who was very aggressively mouthing anti-white [dialogue]. Very, very aggressive black-oriented dialogue, right off the bat. . . .

I started to hear some really hostile reports relative to the script from Carmine. Everybody was just lit up, and I was worried about [them]. Here Len and Marv were trying to make it into the business, and they had just fried their own chicken. So I was concerned about them. I checked into it, and I asked if I could read the script. I thought, maybe just a little doctoring of the script could fix it.
Of course, since people perceived Adams as Wolfman and Wein’s sponsor, a bit of his own reputation was on the line. Here’s how he describes that moment in the DC Universe Illustrated volume:
Len and Marv appealed to me to step in. . . . I went in and made a case. The suits read the dialogue to me...aloud.

I said...just have Len and Marv modify the language.

They didn’t trust them to do it. I volunteered to do it.

They asked did I read the whole script?

I hadn’t. So I did.

Oh. Golly.

Yep, they had done it. It pushed so hard that DC wouldn’t abide it. No amount of dialogue doctoring would turn it around. Len and Marv were ahead of their time. DC wasn’t.
And the deadline for that multi-issue arc was getting tighter. Adams suggested that he could write a similar story without the racial angle, one which probably had to fit the announced title “Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Infantino insisted that Adams needed to pencil the story himself in order to keep the magazine on schedule. The result is a crazy casserole of youth politics, giant robots (as shown at top), masked men, guest stars, crime bosses manipulated by interdimensional monsters, and more.

Adams wasn’t too pleased with his hurried work for Teen Titans, #20-22, in terms of writing or art, but felt that he’d helped preserve Wolfman and Wein’s careers. Giordano saw the whole thing as “my blunder,” and regretted that he and his fellow editors were ordered not to use those young writers. Wolfman recalled, “Len and I didn’t get work for almost two years from DC.”

At least that’s the legend of Jericho. Except that Wein told Cadigan that DC blackballed him and Wolfman over something else, which he didn’t specify:
It was nothing to do with that story. It had to do with an entirely different situation. . . . Something had happened that we were accused of which we were not responsible for. We were sort of blackballed there, and when it was eventually proven that someone else at the company, who had been there for many years, was responsible, they shame-facedly said, “We’re sorry. Never mind,” and we came back to work for them.
That discrepancy is a mystery for comics historians to solve.

In early 1970, longtime DC editor Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) introduced DC’s first black superhero, Mal Duncan, in the pages of Teen Titans. [ADDENDUM: More of that story, and editor Dick Giordano’s use of coloring to minimize complaints about an embrace between Mal and a white girl, at Comic Book Legends Revealed, #229.]


Chaucerian said...

That first drawing does not depict Robin. That is a drawing of a graduate student who did not listen carefully when the Department Administrator explained the lab safety rules (which include wearing appropriate protective clothing when working with hazardous materials).

J. L. Bell said...

Robin’s lab-safety techniques indeed leave a lot to be desired.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember where I read this (probably the first few issues of Comic Book Artist) but I'm pretty sure what Len Wein is referring to is that he and Wolfman were accused of stealing artwork. Artwork was not given back to the artists in those days and was either stored or thrown out. Supposedly there were quite a few professionals who built collections of original art by retrieving it before it was thrown out.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the theory. That would make sense, given the attitude of the times toward old illustrations. A few years before, I understand that a fair amount of John R. Neill’s artwork for the Oz books was rescued from the trash, or from going to the trash, or perhaps just from being filed where no one was appreciating it and it might eventually be trashed, by an Oz fan working with the publisher, Reilly & Lee.