Comics Ate My Brain

February 21, 2008

Pal Joey: Tales of the Teen Titans #s 51-55

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 2:03 am
It’s been a little over a year, but as promised, the New Teen Titans recaps continue!

This post, and the next one, will go over the first real lean period in the group’s history. Although his last story is still in our future, George Perez had pretty much left the building (except for this last run of Tales‘ covers) in favor of Crisis On Infinite Earths. In fact, this particular title — the renamed New Teen Titans Vol. 1, remember — was winding down its original content, with eight original issues to go. Therefore, 50 decent-to-great issues out of 58 isn’t chicken feed, but these last eight are kind of … uneven.

So, with that ringing endorsement, are you excited yet?

Let’s go!

Tales of the Teen Titans #51 (March 1985) kicks off the post-Perez era with a pretty good issue. The new art team of Rich Buckler and Mike DeCarlo (starting with #52; Bob Smith inked #51) are experienced enough to handle this kind of super-team soap opera, and it’s especially appropriate since Perez succeeded Buckler as Fantastic Four penciller some ten years earlier.

Since we’re picking up right after the Troy-Long nuptials, Donna is still honeymooning, and Lilith has replaced Raven, who’s apparently off in Azarath. The issue opens with the Titans breaking up a weapons shipment which, we learn, was meant for the Quraci government. Quraci President Marlo then hires Cheshire to kidnap Jericho’s mother Adeline Wilson. Seems that a) Addie, as a mercenary, helped bring Marlo to power; but b) she was a double agent working for the rival nation of Kyran. Now that c) Marlo has been thinking about invading Kyran, it’s been discovered that d) Addie has apparently removed all the information on Kyran from the Quraci government’s files. Also, e) Addie has a photographic memory and (Marlo says) knows a good bit about Kyran. Press coverage of the Titans has led the Quraci government to Joey, and from there to his mom.

New subplots include Lilith moving in with Kory (Lilith mentions not knowing her background, to which Kory replies “Unknown parents seems [sic] to be a problem in the Titans”) and a mysterious spaceship being discovered in Alaska.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Dick learns that Interpol and the CIA both want to question Joey and his mom, because like Qurac, they want the Kyranian defense secrets too. Unfortunately, the only person Dick can get ahold of is Gar, who’s really not in the mood for another potential Titan traitor. Thus, Gar goes off half-cocked to work out more Terra-related frustrations on Joey, but arrives after the big Cheshire/Addie/Jericho fight. Joey doesn’t have time to waste with Gar, and after taking him out, contacts Amber, another of his mom’s colleagues.

Later, at Titans’ Tower, Gar continues to rant about the danger Joey poses, leading to this exchange:

KORY: And I can’t believe Joe would do anything bad. He’s so warm and caring.

GAR: So was Hitler … to Eva Braun.

Hitler?!? Who said anything about Hitler?

The discussion about Joey resumes briefly at the start of Tales #52 (April 1985), but the Titans are soon distracted by news from STAR Labs about the Alaska discovery. Putting the Jericho situation on his mental back-burner, Nightwing muses that maybe the Terminator’s upcoming trial will give Gar and the rest of the group some closure over Terra’s death. As you might expect, things don’t go perfectly at STAR Labs, with the whatever-it-is heating up to ludicrous levels and blowing up its containment chamber. Cyborg and Lilith are caught in the blast, and Lilith is pinned to the wall by some mysterious energy. I’m tempted to say it’s the Pure Love radiating from the winged amnesiac Adonis that Who’s Who will call “Azrael,” but I honestly don’t know.

In Qurac, Jericho and Amber decide the best way to Addie is to make themselves as obvious as possible. Their plan works a little too well, as Cheshire shows up (seemingly out of nowhere, in a weird storytelling failure) to capture both of them. Addie talks, in order to protect Joey, and the three of them are all put in the same cell. They use Joey’s powers to run a variation on the old “Hey, Where’d He Go?” routine (works every time!) and before too long, Amber’s shooting up Marlo’s palace with an automatic weapon. When she and Cheshire get into a gunfight in Marlo’s art gallery, though, Amber suddenly starts throwing herself in front of the paintings, yelling “Art is forever! You can’t let it die!” Turns out that Joey has been inhabiting her, which gives him the edge over Cheshire. Joey turns solid, knocks out Cheshire, and then chooses to save the paintings over killing the man who tortured his mother. Well, that makes perfec– huh?

The Azrael story takes up the bulk of Tales #53 (May 1985), which also features the return of Wonder Girl and the start of Slade Wilson’s trial. Jericho, Addie, and Amber are off-stage, being questioned by the CIA. (That didn’t carry quite the same connotations back then….)

Basically, after Donna and Terry assert their tennis dominance over Dick and Kory, the Azrael plot blossoms into a “He’s Not A Threat, He’s My Destiny” situation involving Lilith. Her exposure to Azrael last issue has apparently given her heat-style energy powers, so she busts Azrael (still officially unnamed, by the way) out of STAR Labs. Afterwards, the team gathers at Slade’s trial, where Nightwing and the kidnap victim from issue #34 will be witnesses. The defense strategy, bolstered by a mysterious Terminator attack on Lilith earlier that morning, is to show that anyone could have been behind the Terminator’s full-face mask at the times in question. It’s not as good a tactic as Wolfman thinks, considering that there must be a whole body of superhero-specific case law to handle these kinds of masked crimes, but it works to rattle Mr. Victim, so the issue ends with Slade in pretty good shape.

Naturally, because this particular subplot has been fueling the Misunderstood Gar Acts Stupid subplot of the past several months, Tales #54 (June 1985) opens with Gar, well, acting stupid: he starts a fight with Slade in the middle of the courtroom.

Now, I have very little experience with criminal cases, but I’d think that such a super-fight would have serious consequences for the state’s case against an accused super-villain. Furthermore, in typical superhero-comic fashion, Gar tells Judge Adrian Chase that Slade killed him (back in issue #10) and corrupted Tara Markov; which, I’d think, would only compound the state’s problems. However, the issue creates its own continuity messes on top of all that.

Remember how “The Judas Contract” ended with a fight in The HIVE’s base in the Rocky Mountains? Well, now Cyborg tells Chase that the Titans were held captive in the undersea base which was actually the setting of the follow-up storyline. This gives the defense attorney an opening to argue for dismissal based on jurisdictional issues, since that base was outside the U.S. It’s all for nothing, though, because the trial (or whatever it is) will apparently go on after a brief adjournment.

So the Titans (minus Gar) look up Wintergreen, Slade’s version of Alfred, to see if he might have been the Terminator who attacked Lilith last issue. While they’re there, though, the Terminator attacks them, but meets a fiery end in a boat hit by one of Starfire’s blasts. Since the boat belonged to Gar’s foster father, and Gar thought “they bought it!” after he left the courtroom, it looks pretty obvious that Gar’s been working to ensure Slade’s freedom.

New subplot this issue: STAR Labs can give Cyborg plastic replacement parts which look human. His grandparents aren’t too thrilled with the idea, but they’re soon convinced it will be safe. More on that next time.

Back at the trial, the defense calls Lilith and Nightwing in order to have them repeat that no, we can’t be sure who’s behind these masks, good guys or bad guys. Chase then “renders his decision,” which to me seems like a completely arbitrary plot device. I won’t go into all the potential legal problems I see with this hearing — whatever it’s supposed to do — but suffice it to say it’s a traveshamockery. The simplest thing might well have been for Chase to declare a mistrial based on the Gar/Slade fight, but then we wouldn’t have had those two pages’ worth of redundant testimony from Lilith and Nightwing. The upshot of the issue is, as you’ve probably already guessed, Slade is acquitted of the big charges. This suits Gar fine, because he used Steve Dayton’s Mento helmet to impersonate the Terminator himself. Now Gar gets to track Slade down and kill him, which is what he’s wanted to do … well, probably since issue #10, I’m guessing.

Also, in terms of the Lilith/Azrael plot, we learn that Lilith has had her heat-based powers for a while, but she’s just never used them before now. They manifest themselves as nightmares whenever she’s under stress, so that’s why she left the group originally. This time, though, she’s leaving because she’s p.o.’ed over their treatment of Azrael. Don’t worry, she won’t be gone long.

Finally, Tales #55 (July 1985), drawn by Ron Randall, brings the Gar/Slade conflict to a head. Nothing’s going right for the green-skinned 16-year-old — the Titans won’t help him, Steve Dayton’s grounded him, Jillian is once again forbidden to see him, and his attitude isn’t making matters any better. Slade’s been sentenced to a year in a Club Fed on a weapons charge, so that gives Gar an opportunity to attack him in prison. It doesn’t bear out, though, so Gar tells Slade to meet him out in the wilderness where they’ll go mano y animales — to the death. Gar visits Tara’s grave, and Slade visits his son Grant’s.

Trouble is, Slade then shows up at the fight scene without his costume or weapons, and Gar can’t bring himself to kill plain ol’ Slade Wilson. His frustrations having burned themselves out, Gar and Slade start to talk, and they don’t stop until Gar’s worked out his issues. Slade goes over ground that’s fairly familiar to us: he only took the HIVE’s contract on the Titans out of loyalty to his son; Tara Markov was a psychopath (who incidentally killed an old friend of Gar’s from Africa); and once the HIVE contract was fulfilled by “The Judas Contract,” Slade considered himself done with the Titans. The difference seems to be that this time Gar is in a mood to listen; I presume because his nerves are completely shot by this point. In the end, Slade sets Gar straight on a couple of things: Joey is completely trustworthy (also, Addie was working with the CIA); and Gar can prove himself to the Titans primarily by not acting like a doofus so much of the time. We’ll be the judge of that, Mr. Wilson….

* * *

On their own, these issues aren’t that bad. The plots and subplots start to break down the further they go along, though. By the time issue #51 rolls around, Joey’s been with the group for at least five full issues, and has earned enough of their trust to invade the undersea HIVE base and participate pretty heavily in Donna’s wedding. Granted, Joey didn’t spend a lot of time with Gar during those stories, but still. Speaking of the undersea base, of course, that whole snafu illustrates the extent to which Marv was starting to confuse even himself. He was working on Crisis too, lest we forget.

Moreover, in the context of the larger series, these issues seem like a lot of subplot-churning. The Lilith/Azrael story doesn’t really go anywhere. Much of the Gar/Terminator story feels pretty redundant, and undoes all the working-through-grief Gar did in issues 45-50. His sit-down with Slade in #55 is effective, but the book takes a long time to get there. The Jericho story isn’t bad on its own, since it expands on his family history and establishes some intriguing elements in his backstory, but it doesn’t feel like part of the regular book. (Today it’d probably be a separate miniseries.) Overall, these issues seem to be items on a checklist: Joey needs more of his own identity, despite having been in the book for several months; and Gar apparently needs more closure than was previously thought.

Of course, I suspect the real reason for these stories is to fill a certain amount of issues before the reprints of the Baxter series begin. In that respect these stories are the 52 of the franchise’s “One Year Later” jump, but there’s so little difference between the two Titans books that there can’t have been too much going on in this one that’s been left behind.

That illusion-of-change feeling gets worse with the next arc, the last for the book that started it all.

Next: One word — plastics!

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