01 April 2012

The Sensational Character Find of 1965

This being the first of April, it seems appropriate to discuss the Titans’ resident jokester and comic relief: Gar Logan, known alternatively as Beast Boy and Changeling. But mainly how he fits alongside Dick Grayson as Robin/Nightwing. This shows the flexibility (or perhaps the tribulations) inherent in a superhero who’s a supporting character.

Writer Arnold Drake introduced Beast Boy in the Doom Patrol comics of the late 1960s: a green teen (probably inspired by Dean Stockwell’s role in The Boy with Green Hair) who could take the shape of any animal. Beast Boy was a kid sidekick, but not a junior version of any member of the Doom Patrol. At first he wasn’t even a member of the team, but eventually one of those heroes adopted him.

When that magazine was canceled and Drake killed off his creations, young Gar survived as an orphan. After he appeared in some Teen Titans issues of the 1960s and ’70s, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez brought him into their New Teen Titans magazine in 1980 as the team’s gag man. He was one of the five main characters to make the leap to the Teen Titans TV cartoon in 2003.

As a character, Beast Boy has always worked best as part of an ensemble. In 1999 Geoff Johns and Ben Raab wrote a short miniseries with him as the main character, but notably it also featured Dick Grayson and other old teammates. Logan’s most memorable moments in comics have come in the various Titans series, and at the top of that list is “The Judas Contract,” in which Logan fell in love with a cute new Titan named Terra who turned out to be much more trouble than he’d dreamed.

In recent years, DC Comics has moved sharply away from the concept of a single “continuity” or history codifying all forms of its mythology. The Teen Titans of the cartoon aren’t the same as the team in Wolfman and Pérez’s New Teen Titans, or those of their New Teen Titans: Games, or the hybrid team now appearing in the Young Justice cartoon, or the parody versions in Tiny Titans.

The origins, personalities, and powers of DC’s main characters—Superman, Batman and Robin, Green Lantern, etc.—don’t change greatly from one continuity to another, but relationships among them can vary and the histories of secondary characters can change greatly. (The company also treats Wonder Woman as a main character, but her underpinnings do change as creators struggle to figure out what she best represents.)

As a secondary character, Gar Logan is therefore often in flux. New Teen Titans and its offshoots established him as a lovelorn wise guy, a bit younger than his teammates, who submerges his losses and neediness behind jokes.

But in the Young Justice cartoon, Dick Grayson as Robin is the group’s nerdy little wise guy. He’s the youngest of the group and deeply into computers and word games. So what space does that leave for Beast Boy?

In an episode broadcast last month, Young Justice showed us Garfield Logan as an eight-year-old living in Africa with no special powers. He gets a blood transfusion from the hero Miss Martian, a green-skinned shapeshifter. Frankly, that sets up a better explanation of why little Gar might grow up to be a green-skinned shapeshifter than the mysterious disease-and-cure interaction established in Doom Patrol decades ago. But for now that continuity still doesn’t have a Beast Boy.

In Tiny Titans, Robin is the put-upon central figure infatuated with a red-haired girl, and the whole comic is comic relief. So what space does that leave for Beast Boy?

Creators Art Baltazar and Franco re-established his crush on Terra as a more demonstrative one-sided relationship than Robin’s crushes—which is to say that Terra throws rocks at him. Otherwise, however, that comics’ Beast Boy seems more worldly than Robin. And in the magazine’s final issue, he actually comes up a winner.

The Tiny Titans versions of all six of the other New Teen Titans regulars look on happily from the center of this panel.

Finally, where’s Beast Boy in DC Comics’ new main continuity? He’s been changed to a red shapeshifter, more consistent with another animal-based hero. His debut in May will reveal more about that character’s name and history. Rather than part of the revamped Teen Titans, this Beast Boy’s in a related group.

In sum, Beast Boy is going in all directions, as dictated by the storytelling needs of whatever ensemble he’s assigned to.


LC Douglass said...

Nice piece, although I would disagree with your conclusion that Gar is quintessentially a supporting character. That would be like saying that Garth or Roy are only supporting or secondary characters. I think it is a case, rather, that DC simply hasn't done Gar Logan justice. Considering he's one of the long suffering Titans in the Didio era, this isn't surprising.

I did a blog post on how Gar Logan and Dick Grayson are curiously parallel characters in a piece I did on Terra on my blog:


J. L. Bell said...

Calling Gar Logan a “secondary character” was based on his standing in sales, not on whether his character has potential to be a protagonist of his own stories.

But I strongly believe Gar Logan works best in an ensemble, as in the Doom Patrol and the various Titans groupings. His humor works best when there are other characters for him to bounce off of. Lead characters tend to be end up being straight men; even in his own miniseries, Gar’s slacker cousin and Bette provided the laughs that he would usually provide for a group.

More important, the vast contrast between Gar’s outward persona and his inner neediness makes him fascinating to watch but ultimately sad to relate to. The superhero genre seems to depend on identification and uplift.

I don’t like to imagine the DC Universe or the Titans without the Gar Logan that Wolfman and Pérez developed. I wasn’t enjoying the direction other writers were taking him in recent years, with his more “animalistic” side coming out; it would be a loss if the new version of the character continues that trend.

I think you’re right that there are interesting parallels and contrasts between Dick Grayson, one a star who left the spotlight for a secret life and the other an outcast who craves public acclaim. Of course, with Dick Grayson as the original kid sidekick in superhero comics, in some ways every subsequent kid sidekick reflects off him. (Especially Roy Harper, who’s essentially the anti-Robin.)