Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase: The New Teen Titans

April 22, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

I’ve been writing about comics for 411 for the last month or so, trying to find exactly the tone I want this column to have. I firmly believe in keeping things positive, but I also want to analyze comic books and talk about the impact comic books and comic-related media has on it’s viewers. While the comic books industry is like any other business and produces artistic material to make money, it takes an extremely cynical person to believe that art doesn’t have value and meaning just because the creator wants your cash. In truth, comic books have the ability to have a profound impact on the consumers, the same way that movies, music, and even things like video games and professional wrestling are able to connect with us. That’s why they become part of pop culture; they leave an impact far bigger than a few dollars out of our bank accounts.

The goal of 411 Comics Showcase is to spotlight different comic book characters and stories; to recount their history, examine themes and analyze ideas to understand why they resonate with us and why they matter.

Today’s column is a spotlight feature on the history of the Teen Titans, one of DC’s premier superhero teams and the protagonists of the recent direct-to-video animated feature Justice League vs. Teen Titans. If you wish to read a review of that, I recently tackled it here. It’s not quite the Teen Titans movie I always wanted, but it probably is my favorite adaptation of the material outside of their comics. The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman, and especially the early issues with George Perez’ on art duties, may just be my favorite comic book series.

And they require some historical context before we can discuss, so here’s a brief summary of how children were presented in comics up until those comics debuted in 1980.

In April of 1940, writer Bill Finger and illustrator Jerry Robinson changed the history of comic books by debuting Robin in the pages of Detective Comics #38. And I suppose Bob Kane may have had something to do with it also, but I digress. The acrobatic “Boy Wonder” served as a squire to the Dark Knight, and Batman and Robin would become two of the most popular, transcendent characters in all of comics. The logic was that the core comic-reading audience (children) would identify with Dick Grayson and see Batman as a parental figure, something that young children sorely needed coming out of the Great Depression and heading into World War II.

Two months earlier, another key figure in the history of child superheroes made his debut: Billy Batson, who was able to magically transform into the nearly invulnerable Captain Marvel by saying the word “Shazam!” Captain Marvel was the ultimate power fantasy for children, and his influence on the superhero genre is something that really deserves it’s own column. The most important bit of information is that Whiz Comics, the monthly title starring Captain Marvel, was the most commercially successful comic of the 1940’s. Were it not for a copyright battle over the character’s physical resemblance to Superman that eventually led to DC owning the rights to the character, Billy Batson might still be a household name to this day. Children connected with the character, which encouraged them to engage in a power fantasy in a way that Superman couldn’t.

But while Dick Grayson and Billy Batson introduced the idea of child superheroes to the world, DC’s Teen Titans group isn’t just something that popped out of thin air. Considerable credit needs to be given to their primary competition; Marvel Comics changed the game of comic books in a massive way in the 1960’s when Stan Lee introduced the world to characters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. Fantastic Four established the core mechanics of team-up comics that have carried forward to this day, by having wildly different personalities clash to create drama. Spider-Man showed that teenage superheroes could have great power, but also had responsibilities and consequences, making them feel more real to their audience. And Hulk’s entire premise was that a character with godlike strength would be feared and ostracized for being different. Those core ideas govern most of Marvel’s character design, but also have influenced DC’s characters going forward.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the Teen Titans, a group that started as Robin worked with fellow sidekicks Kid Flash and Aqualad, but soon grew to include Wonder Girl and Green Arrow’s ward Speedy. This first incarnation of the Titans was DC’s attempt to appeal to the teenage audience that Marvel Comics were speaking to. The primary narrative theme was growing teenagers pushing their adult guardians out of the way and living their own lives on their terms. Or at least, that’s the intent. The problem with these stories is that the writers of the comic really didn’t have their finger on the pulse of their readers, and simply wrote the teenage heroes as they perceived teenagers to be. And since the youth of America was entrenched in a massive social, political and cultural shift in the 1960’s, the last thing they wanted was to be talked down to by people who didn’t understand them and often looked down on them. The Titans was a moderately successful bi-monthly comic that was cancelled after 43 issues, and it would probably be little more than a relic if not for the greatness that was to follow.

But the Teen Titans was a good idea; the notion of sidekicks was outdated almost as soon as Spider-Man burst onto the scene. But having those same sidekicks grow up and become their own people was a good idea, and something that only DC could really deliver on. After all, Spider-Man, Thor and Iron Man didn’t have kid sidekicks, and even when Captain America returned to the scene, his Robin-inspired child partner Bucky Barnes didn’t come along for the ride. Every person knows what it’s like to clash with their parents over what they think is best for their lives, and DC had the potential to tap into that in a powerful way. But DC also needed new heroes, characters that could expand their roster beyond Superman, Batman and the Justice League team. After all, even Marvel’s flagship team The Avengers was quickly being overshadowed by the newer, flashier X-Men characters that debuted in 1975. Could DC really turn Dick Grayson, Donna Troy and Wally West into superstars that could rival Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash?

The short answer is “Yes.” What they needed was some fresh blood, both in the creative team and on the roster of heroes.

Marv Wolfman was a writer with a talent for writing entertaining dialogue and fleshed-out characters. George Perez was practically a prodigy at comic book art, able to compose epic panels with dozens of characters without sacrificing the emotional weight of character panels. Together, they brought the Teen Titans back in 1980; Robin, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl returned, but the series also gained new regulars that would become mainstays in DC Comics lore. Beast Boy, a shapeshifter from the Doom Patrol, made his way onto the team as Changeling, while Wolfman and Perez introduced the world to three new Titans: the half-man, half-machine Cyborg, the alien princess Starfire, and Raven, the child of an extra-dimensional demon known as Trigon the Terrible.

Wolfman designed the characters’ personalities and personal histories to compliment and clash with each other. Victor Stone was an introverted and angry young man who struggled with the question of his humanity, while Garfield Logan was an outgoing prankster who primarily concerned himself with bad jokes and obnoxiously flirting with the female characters. The two often clashed, but found common ground in their frustration of being experimented on by their parents and the sense that they were freaks who could never quite be normal. Similarly, Raven and Starfire were outsiders to normal human culture; Koriand’r was a warrior princess who had to adjust to not killing everyone, while Raven was raised by the spiritual and pacifist monks of Azerath and had to learn to fight. This was something they shared with Donna Troy, a product of the Amazons, who was both a warrior like Starfire and believed in peace like Raven. Donna was also an emotional center between Kori’s unbound, passionate emotions and Raven’s need to keep them in check.

These diverse personalities provided Wolfman and Perez with an incredibly solid foundation for interesting stories. The characters could clash with each other, learn from each other, find common grown, and grow into stronger, more well-rounded individuals.

The Titans struggled to find their footing at first, but were soon DC’s best-selling comic. Not only could they stand with the legendary heroes in the Justice League, but they could surpass them, solidifying themselves as one of the defining comics of the 1980’s. Not only did this series make new stars out of the heroes, but it also introduced comic readers to Deathstroke the Terminator, a mercenary who became one of DC’s all-time greatest heroes and anti-villains. Wolfman and Perez also never strayed from taking risks and dealing with mature themes. Raven was the child of a mother who was raped by Trigon, Starfire was given away as a slave by her family, and Terra manipulated and betrayed the entire team in a story that resulted in her death and emotional trauma to the team members that considered her a friend. But it could also be mature in a lighter fashion; Starfire and Dick Grayson were romantically involved in an overtly sexual way, and the theme of finding peace with parents affected almost everyone at some point. Despite writing for and about children, Wolfman never talked down to his audience, and allowed them to learn positive life lessons without ever making them feel like they were preached to. Which is why those books still hold up today as some of the finest comics ever written.

The Teen Titans could grow up with the readers, and many of them did. Dick Grayson went from being Robin the Boy Wonder to Nightwing, leader of the Teen Titans and master crimefighter on his own terms. Wally West eventually took over the mantle of The Flash when Barry Allen was killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Indeed, there are many comic book readers who prefer Dick Grayson, Wally West and Donna Troy to their older partners. And Starfire, Cyborg and Raven belong on any list of the greatest DC characters of all time. Considering the iconic characters that make up that list, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

From Under A Rock
Michael Ornelas and I review movies every week in our column From Under A Rock. Last week we covered Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film Apocalypse Now, and this week we are tacking Aliens. Check us out, as Michael is much funnier than I am, and I like talking about things other than comics.