Comics Ate My Brain

March 8, 2008

Who’s Your Daddy? The New Teen Titans Vol. 2 #s 1-6

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 6:03 pm
The first five issues of NTT2 are collected in a paperback called The Terror Of Trigon, but to me they work best as a showcase for George Perez. Appropriate to his last Titans work for four years, he goes out with a bang. He inks himself on issues 1 and 2, and portions of issue 2 are reproduced directly from his pencils. Although Romeo Tanghal returns to ink the last three issues, either his inks have gotten cleaner or the higher-quality paper allows them to be less muddy. Tanghal’s inks compare pretty well to Bob McLeod’s on the second Perez run … but we’ve got a long way to go before that.

The story reminds me of “The Judas Contract,” both in the sense that it caps a long-running subplot, its ending goes a bit beyond what you might have predicted, and it can’t really be appreciated on its own. Just as the four installments of “TJC” are best seen in the light of almost two years’ worth of Terra stories which preceded them, so “Trigon 2” is the culmination of the “Evil Raven” teases which date back to about the same period (if not farther).

Anyway, you want to know what happened, so let’s cruise on….

Issue #1 (August 1984) opens with a training sequence in the Titans’ Island woods (or, I guess, copse of trees). The object of the game is to capture Jericho, and everything’s going well until Raven appears. She doesn’t want anything to do with the game, but Joey doesn’t know that, and tries to take her over. Raven “dodges” by teleporting away before he can merge into her body, leaving Joey — who still managed to brush up against her consciousness — seriously freaked out. The Titans want to help her, of course, so Joey volunteers to talk to Raven. In her pitch-black room, Raven tells Joey her destiny has finally arrived; and a few minutes later, she tells the Titans assembled in the meeting room that she’s leaving.

(There’s an interlude on Tamaran which shows the royal family sending a starship for Kory, but that’s a couple of arcs away, so for now, it just lets Perez show off.)

While Cyborg and Changeling review old photos of Raven which show how Trigon’s influence has changed her physically (and explain Perez’s development with the character’s features), Joey decides to sneak into Raven’s room and take her over as she sleeps … and here Perez really pulls out the stops. Joey/Raven trudges across bridges made of naked bodies and landscapes that would give Ditko’s Doctor Strange nightmares. There he finds Arella, Raven’s mother, naked herself; and as Arella cries that he’s not her daughter, Trigon appears suddenly, blasting Raven’s very form off of Joey.


Trigon treats Joey like a Nazi opening the Ark of the Covenant, but after a few moments Raven appears. Trigon shoos Joey back to Titans’ Tower, where the Titans discover him, again, understandably Freaked Out. It’s a dark, stormy middle of the night as Joey fills in the group, and as he finishes, the Titans hear Trigon’s laughter….

Issue #2 (October 1984) opens with Perez on pencils only, following Arella (now fully clothed, so maybe her appearance in #1 was an illusion) and on the lookout for Raven. She’s in Azar’s dimension, but it’s far from the calm star-studded place we’ve seen before. Now the skies crackle with energy and Trigon’s bat-winged minions fly overhead. Arella catches up to Raven, terrified as Raven turns to face her, and Trigon cries out “She is mine!”

Meanwhile, the Titans have found Raven’s rings, and wonder why Raven would have left them behind. Lucky for them Lilith shows up at that moment. The Titans apologize for the events of Tales #54 (specifically — and foreshadowingly — footnoted, since that issue was still about a year away), and Lilith says she was drawn to Titans’ Tower because she could tell all the bad craziness was connected to Raven. As Lilith takes one of the rings, lightning strikes the tower (and Cyborg), a window blows out, and an unnatural wind whips the room into a frenzy. It’s over just as quicly, though.

Lilith observes that “[t]hese rings are the nexus to [Raven’s] soul. But we need to reach her heart as well.” Thus, Dick and Donna take a T-Jet to Blue Valley to retrieve Wally West. The skies are stormy there too. Moreover, Frances Kane doesn’t want Wally to leave her … but he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.

Back at the tower, Lilith summons a spectral, faceless Raven through a seance, but Raven doesn’t stick around. However, the Azarites summon the Titans through Raven’s rings, and the Titans are zapped to Azarath only to find it destroyed.

The Titans try to save as many Azarites from the bat-creatures as they can, but it’s too late. Lilith, Arella, and the remaining Azarites gather at Azar’s tomb to sacrifice themselves. The bat-creatures obliterate everything in their path …

… and Raven, now completely transformed into a red-skinned, four-eyed replica of Trigon, appears with him over Titans’ Tower.

Issue #3 (November 1984) begins with a full-page, full-face shot of the demonic Raven, inviting the people of New York (watching on TV) to please put their hands together for their new lord and master. Raven does in fact announce that “resistance is futile,” about five years before the cool kids started saying it.

Meanwhile, the Titans and Arella wake up in what’s left of Azarath, now basically an infinte white nothingness peppered by rocky outcroppings. Lilith informs the group that the Azarites have joined with Azar in the great beyond; that Raven has been taken over completely by Trigon; that Azar’s rings protected the Titans from Trigon’s destructive forces; and that Trigon is now on Earth. Azar’s rings take the group back to New York, only to find it transformed into a literal concrete jungle similarly populated by souls writhing in torment. It’s not long before the Titans run across Trigon (sleeping, lucky for them) and Raven (awake and upset). Raven downs everyone except Joey and Gar, and when Joey tries again to take her over, she repels him again — this time with extreme prejudice.

As for the remaining six Titans, Raven sends them each into their own personal hells, where they must face black-and-white-and-red-eyed evil versions of themselves. Yes, like in the cartoon. However, the gore factor is significantly higher here, because each must also face his or her worst fear. Dick confronts a Jason Todd who couldn’t save Batman from a grisly death. Vic’s friends prefer his completely-human evil double. Gar’s literally devours his loved ones; and Donna’s kills Terry (but I’m sure is otherwise evil). Kory’s invites her to submit again to slavery; and Wally’s is a Trigon-eyed Kid Flash who taunts him for his wimpiness. These visions are all in the Titans’ minds, naturally — their bodies are trapped in a stone column, same as everyone else on Earth.

Issue #4 (January 1985) picks up there, and shows the Titans being run through familiar sets of angst. Each in turn gives in to his or her dark side, however, and as each kills an evil counterpart, his or her eyes turn glowy red. When the last Titan succumbs, their bodies are freed, but now they too have been transformed into black-and-red “negatives.” Raven boasts that “Trigon has won,” but Lilith says no — thanks to the rings, she controls the Titans.

The transformed Titans attack Raven, chanting “Destroy her!” and absorbing her counterattacks. Trigon remains motionless atop Titans’ Tower. Finally, the evil Starfire pumps a few lethal starbolts into Raven’s “spiritless body,” killing her.

This returns the Titans to normal, but of course they’re horrified at what they’ve done. Lilith basically says don’t sweat it — “only in your evil forms would you have killed her,” and “Trigon could not be defeated unless his daughter died.” Speaking of Trigon, his voice now booms out over the landscape, vowing “vengeance” for Raven’s death. He’s awake, and he’s about 300 feet tall.

Accordingly, issue #5 (February 1985) is the big Titans vs. Trigon blowout. Wally, despite his weak heart and the ongoing problems with his super-speed, is first out of the gate, but Trigon takes him out pretty quickly. The rest of the group (except Nightwing) then charges, only to have Trigon drop Titans’ Tower on them. As Trigon strides through the wasteland that was New York, Nightwing lobs a grenade at him, but Trigon smites him with his staff. Trigon exposits about how Earth is the center of all his troubles — the Azarites, who imprisoned him, came from here, as did Arella; and Earth has constantly resisted his power, “longer than any other.” Thus, Earth must be destroyed.

However, Lilith still senses that the Titans are alive, and guess what — Starfire has been protecting them with an energy shield. She shrugs off the rubble of Titans’ Tower, the group plucks a still-breathing Nightwing out of his own pile of wreckage, and Lilith starts to outline their plan. Wally, unfortunately for his fans, is ready to give up in the face of Trigon’s overwhelming power, but nobody else is.

Trigon, standing atop the Twin Towers, opens a gateway into his home dimension so that he can project Earth’s energy into it. Azar, speaking through Lilith, tells Arella to put Raven’s rings back on Raven’s hands — turns out she’s not dead, “[s]he has only been emptied … for no soul-filled life could survive what comes next.” Replacing the rings distracts Trigon, and gives the Titans an opening. They attack, but they know they’re not doing much harm. The real action is back with Arella, Lilith, and Raven, who’s starting to sparkle and glow. Here, then, is the big finish:





In a nutshell, Raven’s soul-self — which, you’ll remember, had been corrupted by Trigon when she was still a girl in Azarath — had been replaced completely with Trigon’s energies. Now that she’s been “emptied,” Azar had space to insert Azarath’s energies in its place. They now destroy Trigon, ghostly faces swarming over him like locusts, picking the flesh from his bones until nothing remains. Raven herself fades away, a beatific expression on her once-again-human face. With the explosion of light that marks her passing, the world returns to normal…

… except for Titans’ Tower, which is just a stump of girders.

Issue #6 (March 1985) — again, not included in the paperback — is an epilogue pencilled by “Daniel” Jurgens wherein the Titans and New York recover from Trigon’s takeover. A lot of it is devoted to characters giving speeches — not like the past five issues didn’t have their share of speechifying, but here the words get more attention than the pictures do. Besides, the speeches start out as news reports celebrating the Titans’ victory before segueing into subplot maintenance. Wally and Frances Kane restate their commitments to not using their powers. Azrael (or Emo-Angel-Guy, since he still doesn’t have a name) sees Lilith on the teevee and waxes poetic about her. (An old feller, seeing him and apparently not hearing his pronouncements, calls him the “Angel of Death.” Oh, Marv.) Arella announces she’s going to search for Raven.

Ultimately, Terry Long suggests that the group (minus Joey, who’s recovering in the hospital) take another camping trip to the Grand Canyon and reconnect there. Each of the Titans recaps their Trigon-nightmares and explains how they continue to feel weighed down by them. (Well, Starfire is upbeat, but that’s to be expected.) Terry then instructs them to turn those frowns upside down, because the fact that they’re worried about these things means that they’ve got control of their fears.

I’m including issue #6 in the Trigon arc because it does provide some closure, but it would have worked better with Perez art. That’s not the fairest comparison, and Jurgens tries hard, but his figures just lack the subtleties that Perez would have brought to this kind of issue. Let’s put it this way: without Perez, I get the feeling that Wolfman wanted to write that much more dialogue to drive the various points home. Well, mission accomplished, Marv.

* * *

This arc has some very spooky moments, an horrific, gory second act, and a climax of almost Biblical proportions. However, it’s also very “inside baseball” in parts, asking longtime readers to remember virtually back to the beginning of the series. The humor also seems somewhat forced, like Marv is trying to “write funny” It then connects those various storylines and subplots in a way that might actually be more friendly to new readers, but then the departure of George Perez leaves the book on a different footing than it started. Overall, though, it’s very satisfying, especially if you believe that this puts the Titans’ various Trigon-aggravated hangups to rest once and for all. (I don’t know that it does; that’s part of the reason I’m reading these again.)

The arc also works well as a commentary on the final “newsprint” storylines. Wally gets one last adventure with the Titans, after refusing to go after the HIVE undersea base. Lilith has both some tension with the group and a reason to be attuned to their needs. Vic’s all-human evil twin probably helps him overcome any lingering doubts about his recent surgery. Gar has had a chance to work through his feelings about Terra, Joey, and Deathstroke. Having since married Terry, Donna has more of a need to affirm her commitment to him.

I also have to note that, once again, Wally West comes across as both craven and ineffectual. I presume that Marv and George considered this an outgrowth of his “retirement.” It might also have been a way to provide an audience-identification character whose “game over, man!” pronouncements could have further heightened the tension. Wally does have some heroic moments in Azarath, and he’s first to challenge Trigon, but his particular character arc doesn’t end well. Maybe, even as close in time to Crisis On Infinite Earths as this arc comes, Wally was still meant to be retired permanently, so to have him struggle with his powers, and continue to pine for a superheroic life, might have been too much of a tease. Regardless, he’ll get turned around before too long, so I can’t complain too much.

Finally, this arc brings the stories of Raven and Trigon to a pretty definite end. Anytime you can say that about a superhero serial, it’s a good thing. That ending might not have held up over the long haul, but that’s (literally) a story for another day.

Next: The Children of the Sun!

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March 1, 2008

Extreme Makeover: Tales of the Teen Titans #s 56-58

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 8:49 pm
It’s never felt quite right to me that this Cyborg/Fearsome Five arc should take up three whole issues. The Fearsome Five subplot feels rather perfunctory; and the Cyborg one has no real consequences. Still, for a story that purports to give Vic Stone the skin-deep “humanity” he has ostensibly craved ever since the series began, three issues isn’t bad. Any fewer and the subject isn’t taken seriously; too many more and it’s just toying with the reader.

Of course, any drama would be sucked out of Vic’s storyline if a reader remembered seeing ads for the direct-market-only NTT Vol. 2, or even Crisis On Infinite Earths, which showed him apparently unchanged. I suppose someone in the reverse situation — a direct-market reader who still kept up with Tales — might wonder a little more about Vic’s flirtation with skin-colored parts.

While Vic is the Ben Grimm of the Titans, Ben actually did lose his orange hide every so often. By contrast, Vic has been stuck with his cybernetic parts constantly, and so has had time to get used to them. Moreover, his work with Sarah Simms’ kids has helped him become a new kind of role model. In short, Vic should be above this kind of “I realize now that it’s what’s on the inside” story, but hey — there’s three issues to kill, and it makes an appropriate bookend to the monster-from-Vic’s-origin which appeared in DC Comics Presents #26.

So, then, on to the issues themselves. Your penciller for this arc is Chuck Patton, inked by the familiar Mike DeCarlo in Tales #56 (August 1985). The issue begins at STAR Labs’ hospital facility, where Raven breaks up an attempt by armored stormtroopers to hijack a mysterious iron-lunged patient being overseen by DC stalwart Dr. Jenet Klyburn. Raven’s none too happy that the troopers are indirectly endangering the life of a little girl who’s also a patient, so she metes out Trigon-flavored punishment on the troopers while using her own (much expanded) healing abilities to cure just about everyone in the ward. As it happens, though, the raid succeeds.

Meanwhile, Joey and his mom return from Europe. They’re greeted by Gar, who apologizes profusely for his flagrantly emo storyline. (Also, I forgot to mention last time — in #53, Cheshire reveals that one of the Titans is her baby daddy. Now, no fair spoiling it for the rest of us!)

After a brief interlude with Vic and Sarah Simms, which addresses some concerns about the propriety of his subplot, the Fearsome Five (minus Dr. Light) raid Tri-State Prison looking for their own mystery person. Nightwing, Wonder Girl, and Starfire try unsuccessfully to stop them.

In between all of that, Vic goes under Dr. Klyburn’s knife. Seems that although he’s happy with his super-heroic state, he sees the procedure as a chance to correct the original accident and live an ordinary life. It’s an offer he can’t really refuse.

The issue ends not on a Vic-related cliffhanger, however, but with Donna and Kory in a deathtrap situation. Regardless, Tales #57 (September 1985) picks up with Vic de-plated, having come through the surgery okay. In fact, Kory and Donna’s escape from said deathtrap is never really explained, so there you go. Must not have been too bad.

This issue slows down in order to examine each of its parallel tracks: Vic meets his new physical therapist, the femulleted Dr. Sarah Charles; the Titans hit the training field to prepare better for their next fight; and the Fearsome Five (knowingly abbreviated “FF” by the Titans) get to know their new teammate, Jinx. Everything converges when the FF — who were behind the raid on STAR that opened #56 — can’t figure out how to revive their other mystery member, and decide to kidnap Dr. Klyburn. They also take her “assistant” Vic, who they don’t recognize without the parts. The Titans investigate, but don’t get anywhere beyond learning about Vic’s surgery.

Mystery Date turns out to be Neutron, a Wildfire-like Superman villain, and Vic helps Dr. K. sabotage Neutron’s iron lung so it’ll explode when opened. Unfortunately, while Vic and the Doc escape, the strain’s too much for Vic’s new parts. Accordingly, Tales #58 (October 1985) shows Vic getting his cyborg parts back while the other Titans duke it out with the Fearsome Six. I should point out that during this fight, Psimon is beamed up to the Monitor’s satellite where he’ll stay for three months (!) while Crisis On Infinite Earths pre-heats. Furthermore, Jericho is put to good use, body-jumping from one Fearsome Fiver to another and generally giving the Titans a decisive advantage. I’ve never really liked the Fearsome Five, even when Wolfman and Perez were making them deliberately over-the-top. Here they’re just annoying, and the fight is rather bland.

A word about the art: Chuck Patton is a competent storyteller, but not really an innovative one. His characters are on-model, he can draw action and expressions equally well, and his figures have some flashes of personality. He’s inked in #56 by Mike DeCarlo and in the other two issues by Romeo Tanghal, two strong inkers who tend to impose their own styles on pencils. Ultimately, though, if he were getting steady work from DC today, he’d be pencilling Countdown. His stuff gets the job done, and that’s about it.

At the end of the issue, when everyone’s gathered around Vic’s bedside, he backpedals a bit (“I thought I got used to the way I looked, but I really didn’t”) and actually says “it’s what’s goin’ on inside [that counts].” So … yeah. In the other epilogue, the Titans present Jericho with his own life-size wall poster to hang alongside the others in Titans’ Tower’s wood-paneled meeting room.

And so we bid adieu to The New/Tales of the Teen Titans Vol. 1. In the end, this arc is probably best remembered for the introduction of Jinx, a character who’ll go on to bigger and better things as part of the “Teen Titans” cartoon. It also closes out a period lasting over a year where, except for issue #50, the core group of Titans never appeared together. From the end of “The Judas Contract” through this issue, at least one Titan (mostly Gar and/or Vic, but sometimes Donna and/or Joey) was absent from the group. I’m not even counting Raven, whose storyline is about to heat up in a big way, and who’ll thereafter be absent from the group for a good two years.

We’ll pick up next time with the first arc from New Teen Titans Vol. 2. It’s the last bit of George Perez’s first run on the title, and it also works as a bookend to Vol. 1’s first extended storyline.

Next: Wait ’til your father gets home…

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!

February 4, 2007

Hey Little Sister, What Have You Done: Tales of the Teen Titans #s 48-50

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 8:38 pm
These issues are bittersweet for a few reasons. Obviously, the wedding is the apex of Donna-worship. As for Terry … yeah, he’s there too. Tales of the Teen Titans #50 also represents the conclusion of George Pérez’s first, longest, and most successful tenure with these characters. Therefore, it’s our last bit of Pérez for a while. Appropriately enough, then, Tales #48 and #49 feature guest artists Steve Rude and Carmine Infantino, respectively, doing fill-ins while Marv and George are busy with wedding logistics.

Tales of the Teen Titans #48 (November 1984) presents the “RECOMBatants,” a thinly-disguised pastiche of the DNAgents, a teen superhero team from the mid ‘80s created by Mark Evanier and Will Meuginot. This was part of an unofficial Titans/DNAgents crossover that mirrored the unofficial JLA/Avengers crossovers of the early ‘70s. Accordingly, to balance things out, the Titans got to be the Squadron Supreme over in the DNAgents’ own book. How’s the story itself? Well, remember how Thunder and Lightning were misunderstood teens who didn’t ask for their powers and were forced to use them in self-defense against a world that hated and feared them? Yeah, pretty much that, plus the fact that the RECOMBatants were only a one-shot deal and therefore got to enjoy a poignant sendoff.

II suspect the main interest in this issue today is the Dude (and inker Al Gordon)’s take on the Titans, because it’s pretty far from Pérez. The lines are thicker, there are more shadows and mood, and everything is generally more fluid. Don’t get me wrong — Pérez’s figures can move, and his work is very dynamic, but Rude’s characters are incredibly laid-back and look a lot more weightless.

A lot of it seems to be that Rude’s figures are more exaggerated than we’ve been used to seeing. Perez tends to let his layouts do a lot of the work, and his figures then move within their confines. Rude isn’t as layout-conscious, so his figures have to make up for it. Rude is also more of a cartoonist.

The main story is only 18 pages, leaving room for a brief set of epilogues drawn (as were the previous few issues) by Pérez and Mike DeCarlo. Gar Logan and Jillian get chewed out by Steve Dayton (who looks a lot like Reed Richards here) for letting Donna use the Dayton mansion for the wedding without his permission. Dayton also happens to know Swamp Thing, although it’s not clear how.

Terry then gets a sendoff from a handful of his naughty! female students as again, Marv and George use wedding-related events to show that all of the ancillary characters are obsessed with sex. The issue ends with a short scene between Jericho and Raven, with him sensing something wrong and her warning him away.

Tales #49 (December 1984) features more shenanigans by Terry’s groomsmen, the Midlife Crisis Brigade …

… as well as the dramatic reappearance of Sharon Tracy, Donna’s roommate from back in the dizzay. According to TitansTower.com, Sharon first appeared in Teen Titans #22 (July-August 1969), the Marv Wolfman-written issue that first related Donna’s origin (establishing her as different from a young Wonder Woman) and introduced her red long-pantsed costume. Therefore, it’s nice to see her again, hanging out with Lilith Clay (herself appearing for the first time since the Titans West days, I believe) and Diana Prince.

Didn’t Gene Siskel once say his test of good characterization was whether he’d want to have lunch with the characters? Well, all the wedding subplots are fairly drama-free, so these framing sequences and epilogues are the equivalent. They’re often corny, but they’re still enjoyable.

The bulk of #49 concerns Wally West and Frances Kane’s guerilla warfare against Doctor Light. Somehow he can turn himself into a ball of light and break into the Central City bank, but after he surrounds himself with darkness he can’t stop Frances’ magnetically-hurled implements of destruction. In other words, Light is just powerful enough to be a menace for about six pages. Wally spends the fight running too fast to be seen (he still has a secret identity at this point but left his costume at Titans’ Tower when he retired), saving bystanders, and getting clocked by Light’s invisible forcefield. Anyway, Light is eventually so bumfuzzled by Fran’s attacks that he begs the cops to take him away. I used to think that Mark Waid was solely responsible for Fran’s descent into psycho-hosebeast territory, but dialogue here lays the foundation for it pretty well. Frances tells Wally she enjoys using her powers, and while Wally’s jokes are in the “glad you’re on my side!” vein, it’s hard not to think of her shrewish future here.

Turns out Wally and Fran’s adventure delayed their meeting with the Flash, who’s right in the middle of his murder trial at this point. Flash basically tells Wally that puberty has screwed with his powers, so that using his speed is not only harmful, it could be fatal. The issue ends with a couple of quiet scenes — Donna and Terry relaxing on the night before the wedding, and a virtually static final page where Wally leaves a sweet RSVP on Donna’s answering machine. Now, crank up the organ and cue the doves — it’s time for the Wedding of Donna Troy!

First off, Tales #50 (February 1985) is a beautiful comic. Perez says goodbye with a flourish, using his layouts to freeze time for the literally life-changing moments that deserve them. Donna’s appearance at the ceremony …

… and the happy couple’s first married kiss …

…are exquisitely framed to capture both their sweep and intimacy.

The issue builds a certain amount of tension, too, through sequences on Paradise Island meant to suggest some problem for Donna and/or Diana to solve; and through corresponding sequences at Dayton Estates suggesting someone creeping around. However, there are no supervillains interrupting this remarkably mundane occasion, just Queen Hippolyte getting special dispensation from the gods to leave Paradise Island and give Donna her blessing in person. Indeed, Donna’s wedding is a fairy-tale affair after all.

The only Titan not present at the wedding is Raven, hiding in Azarath’s dimension and literally afraid to show her face as she becomes more consumed by Trigon. In fact, Raven is the only costumed character in the issue, if you don’t count Cyborg’s armor under his tuxedo. Still, everyone else is there, clearly identified and placed in context, including most of Titans West. Some of the “civilians” don’t fare as well — Donna’s family from “Who Is Donna Troy?” are all around, of course, but there’s not much to help the casual reader with them. There are also a number of “insider” cameos, including Marv and George themselves and colorist Adrienne Roy. “Phoenicia,” designer of the bridal party’s gowns, was a friend of Perez’s, and apparently a number of fans even got to see themselves drawn into the issue. I think they’re ogling Bruce and Dick.


The regular cast has a lot to do, naturally. Gar shows some unexpected maturity as wedding coordinator, sublimating his continued angst over Terra’s death pretty well. Vic throws a little fit when he finds out Steve Dayton’s been using the Mento helmet to conceal Vic’s cybernetic implants, but he and Gar make up. Joey shows his mom (in her first appearance since “The Judas Contract,” so that’s a little jarring) his portrait of the happy couple and, honestly, it looks like it should be on the side of a van.

Kory probably has the least to do, story-wise, but she has to share bridesmaid duties with Sharon and Diana. Dick gets to confess his platonic love for Donna, and he also caps the subplot of being “estranged” from Bruce with a warm scene that, yes, informs a similar scene in last summer’s Justice League of America #0.

Those Dick/Donna and Dick/Bruce scenes are still pretty effective. Dick/Babs is the “meant-to-be” relationship now, and there was never really any hint that Dick and Donna were more than friends. Thus, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to transfer Dick’s feelings for Donna over to Babs, especially when both become unattached.

As for Dick/Bruce, talk of Natalia “Nocturna” Knight adopting Jason Todd, plus the last panel where each toasts the other and his team, places this scene squarely in the transitory mid-1980s. I never quite believed Bruce’s paternal feelings towards Jason (or Tim, for that matter), mostly because pre-Crisis Jason seems to spend more time with Dick. For that matter, it made more sense to me that Bruce would feel like Dick’s big brother, not his dad, so their relationship as guardian and ward were more appropriate. However, this scene defined the Bruce/Dick relationship for a whole lot of people for many years to come, and who am I to argue?

The wedding itself does have a few cringeworthy moments. Both Michael Jackson and Sting* make cameos, and depending on how you feel about the late John Denver, “Annie’s Song” as the First Dance may be a dealbreaker. Also, while Dick, Joey, and Mal “Hornblower” Duncan are all shown rocking out while the regular band takes five, apparently Roy Harper no longer wishes to relive his Great Frog days.

Maybe the best thing about this issue is that it makes the wedding and reception look fun. It’s the kind of shindig you wish you could put on, and if you’ve ever had to plan a wedding, it’s the kind of party you hope you threw. The buildup to #50, and especially #49’s last couple of pages, convey pretty well the crest of tension that any newlywed-to-be feels the night before. By the day of, there’s nothing you can do about it: either it works or it doesn’t, so just let it happen. Thankfully, Marv and George (and inker Dick Giordano, with an assist by DeCarlo again) made sure it all worked. I have to say, when I started going to my own friends’ weddings a few years after this issue came out, it was always in the back of my mind. It was there too when the Best Fiancee Ever and I started thinking about our own nuptials. I didn’t lobby for “Annie’s Song,” but I wouldn’t have kicked it off the playlist.

Like I said with regard to “Who Is Donna Troy,” this issue works almost despite the fact that there’s not much more to Donna beyond being pretty and nice. However, the peculiar alchemy Wolfman and Perez were able to use on her has turned that around into a kind of unequivocal goodwill — that because she’s so nice, we don’t want anything bad to happen to her, and we even actively wish her well. Indeed, we probably feel sorry for her that much more when she gets stuck with thankless expository 52 backups.

But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves. For now, I’m happy to let Donna and Terry enjoy their honeymoon.

Next: Rich Buckler comes aboard, Cheshire returns, and Gar gets closure with the Terminator!

*Actually, it might have been John Constantine having some fun, even if his first appearance was still a while away. He did know Steve Dayton, after all.

January 15, 2007

Waterlogged: Tales of the Teen Titans #s 45-47

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 1:00 am
Remember the recap of NTT #s 10-12, when I said it was always a chore for me to get through those issues? Well, the same applies to Tales #s 45-47, the “end of the HIVE” story. Put simply, the Titans attack and destroy the HIVE’s underwater headquarters. This takes three issues. The subplots, involving Gar & Vic and Wally West & Frances Kane, are more interesting than the main action, but they get lost in all the big sequences.

Starting this issue, there’s also a lot less George Perez, since he’s busy over in the new New Teen Titans Vol. 2 supplying full pencils and inks (at least for the first couple of issues). This, plus gearing up for Crisis on Infinite Earths, meant that he could only provide loose pencils for Tales, with inker Mike DeCarlo finishing everything. DeCarlo had been working on the book already, inking the last chapters of “The Judas Contract” with Dick Giordano, but these issues are more DeCarlo than Perez, so everybody gets the same wide-eyed face and a lot of Perez’s detail work is lost. Back then, the direct-market-only NTTv.2 might not have had the circulation of the newsstand-distributed Tales, but considering both titles today, Tales definitely feels like the little brother.

Still, these three issues had ambition. The whole thing starts well enough in Tales of the Teen Titans #45 (August 1984), with a near-death Aqua-couple dropping cold just short of the inviting Titans’ Tower pool. Wait, I can hear you interrupting, pool?!? isn’t Titans’ Tower on an island? Ah, therein lies the tale: the HIVE has been poisoning the seawater around its base, and Aqualad and Aquagirl got caught in the toxic zone. The group of Titans decides it’s had enough of the HIVE, and is still nursing the emotional wounds from Terra’s death, so Nightwing, Starfire, Wonder Girl, and Jericho head out with Aqualad and Aquagirl to do some damage.

However, that’s at the end of an issue front-loaded with subplots. The most prominent is Gar’s turn for the dark and gritty, as he works out his Terra issues through the mauling of evildoers. Cyborg tries to counsel him, but he admits he’s been busy, and this really sets Gar off: “I understand you had better things to do. So did Donna and Kory and Dick and everyone else, too.” As Gar stalks off, Vic muses that the Titans really were naive to trust Terra, which makes me feel better about my own armchair analysis.

Meanwhile, Vic’s wacky grandparents — ex-Vaudevillians who know how to pick locks, among other things — show up at his apartment. More with them later.

The wackiness continues at Terry Long’s bachelor party, attended by teetotaler Dick Grayson (“Somebody’s got to drive the school bus home”) and Terry’s goofball Midlife Crisis Brigade. Yes, there is a stripper. Yes, only the Midlife Crisis Brigade cares. Dick and Terry are, of course, above such low pursuits, and they share a moment about how they have found their lobsters, and of course no stripper will distract them.

Over on Paradise Island, Donna is getting an Amazonian bachelorette party, and if you can imagine the bizarre sexual shenanigans of the Marston/Peter Wonder Woman, you’ll have only the faintest idea of the deprav … okay, it’s not like that at all, drat the luck. Diana gives Donna a new set of Amazon bracelets, reflecting her dual Amazon/human heritage, and it’s all very sweet … but really, don’t we all at least imagine the other?

Finally, we catch up with Raven and Jericho, the latter picking up the former as she gives her well-meaning geeky classmate the old it’s-not-you-it’s-my-demonic-father brushoff. In Joey’s car, Raven monologues about how Joey’s so trustworthy and calming, but then she abruptly teleports to Titans’ Tower, because hey — weren’t some Atlanteans dying?

Lucky for Aqualad and Aquagirl (Garth and Tula, since I keep forgetting to mention their real names), Wally and Fran had returned to the Tower looking for some closure from Terra’s death, when they found the ex-Titans about to die. With Dick busy trying to save their lives, though, Wally’s free to vent about having to learn of Terra’s death through the mainstream media. To me this is a valid issue, maybe not raised at the best time, but still underscoring Wally’s subtle rejection by the group. When Dick starts making preparations to attack the HIVE base, he invites Wally to join them, but Yoko/Fran vetoes that, and Wally sheepishly agrees. Fran apparently thinks Wally’s still in lurve with Raven, and Wally’s tapdancing around telling the Titans (and us) how sick he’s gotten.

But that’s a subplot for another day, because now we’re into #46 (September 1984) and the attack proper. A few pages in the middle of the book check in on Vic with his grandparents, and the aftermath of Gar’s mauling another skel, but other than that it’s all combat. I’m not going to go into much detail, except to give a few highlights.

First, Tula/Aquagirl gets a couple pages to herself, fighting random HIVE goons. I don’t know her history, but I’d bet Topo the octopus got more face time in the Aquaman books than she did. Therefore, putting her in the spotlight here was nice — kind of a last hurrah, considering her fate in Crisis On Infinite Earths. She gets zapped by flamethrowers, causing Raven to teleport in and throw some Trigon dark-side mojo onto the unsuspecting HIVErs.

The HIVE mistress herself is introduced this issue too. She’s like the Borg Queen, I suppose, put through a Junior League filter. Perez designed her to look like Bernadette Peters as a platinum blonde, but she really reminds me of Julia Duffy’s airhead heiress-turned-maid on “Newhart.”

Also, Jericho takes over an unconscious HIVE flunky, so there’s that. More with him later. Anyway, the Titans (minus Raven, who’s stayed behind to guard the still-recovering Aquagirl) fight HIVErs until they get herded into a big empty room. All the doors slam and the chamber is ejected out into the ocean, where it’s destroyed.

That’s where #47 (October 1984) picks up, and if you supposed that Raven could have saved the group by gathering them into her soul-self, you probably remembered NTT #23, when she did pretty much the same thing. The group blasts its way back into the base, but Raven’s tapped out from the expenditure of power and teleports away. By this time, though, Flunky #32 (the guy controlled by Joey) has awakened, and he’s ready to tell the Titans about all the base’s secret snares, because, y’know, Bernadette was ready to kill him too. So, for starters, he tells the Titans the HIVE is going after Atlantis itself.

And on that note, we zap back to Titans Tower (where Raven is apparently nowhere to be found … hmm …) to see Gar still upset over Terra. Vic shows up, wanting to talk, but Gar only wants to kill Deathstroke. However, his bloodlust is sated somewhat by the sudden appearance of his old girlfriend, Jillian No-Last-Name, from Tales of the New Teen Titans #3. (No, it’s not explained how she got past security, although Vic isn’t surprised to see her, so maybe that’s a clue.) Gar still wants Deathstroke dead, though.

Back at HIVE base, Perez treats us to a two-page spread that kicks off a sequence of (mostly) all-woman action, with Wonder Girl, Aquagirl, and Starfire busting heads while Nightwing, Aqualad, and Jericho act more indirectly. Starfire gets knocked out, but Jericho takes control and, in her body, fights through flames and an electrified net to destroy the base’s innards. Sensing that all is lost, the HIVE mistress flips the suicide switch that kills herself and her inner circle. In a somewhat anticlimactic touch, Aqualad rips the guts out of a missile launched at Atlantis, but by then the HIVErs are dead and the base is set to self-destruct. It’s all very perfunctory at the end, which is weird considering all the buildup.

Speaking of which, the HIVE mistress’ posthumous message to the Titans reveals that a) they were going to poison the world’s oceans and blackmail its governments into obedience; and b) they wanted to make a name for themselves, and went after the Titans because they’d be easier to kill than the Justice League. In a final panel showing a certain golden satellite, Lyla tells the Monitor that the HIVE has been defeated.

And that’s the end. Not a bad little arc, if you like action, and it did address some of the lingering issues from Terra’s death, but it still feels unnecessary. If the HIVE’s main base had been destroyed by Terra’s death throes in Annual #3, that would have been one thing, and the book could have moved on. However, Donna’s wedding is coming up in #50, and there’s even a couple of fill-in issues before then, so maybe Wolfman and Perez decided they needed to stretch things out a little beforehand. They couldn’t go right into Raven’s continuing Trigon problems, because that was the subject of the parallel arc in NTTv2, and in between I guess they didn’t have as much plot as they thought.

With that in mind, these subplots still felt a bit reheated. The overall structure — one group destroys a base while a member lashes out — is reminiscent of NTT #13, and as noted above, the means of the Titans’ escape in #47 was identical to Raven’s actions in #23.

Female characters are prominent in this arc. Bride-to-be Wonder Girl is contrasted (perhaps unintentionally) with the HIVE mistress, a widow who keeps musing that her late husband would have handled the Titans better. Aquagirl does her share of butt-kicking, as does Raven. The ghost of Terra continues to haunt Gar (until he’s brought back to earth by Jillian), and Frances Kane likewise continues to influence Wally. Finally, Vic’s grandmother gives him a dressing-down after he reminds them they (too) haven’t cared enough to check in on him since his dad died. I don’t think there is any grand design behind all these characters, but it’s worth noting.

In the end, this arc was probably intended to be cathartic for the Titans after the Grand Guignol of “The Judas Contract.” Regardless, in hindsight it’s hard not to see Marv and George checking another ongoing subplot off their list before Perez leaves the book. Having the arc end with a nod to Crisis may be more revealing than they originally intended.

Next up: The Dude, Doctor Light, and Donna’s wedding!

September 16, 2006

New Teen Titans #s 39-40 and Tales of the Teen Titans #s 41-44 and Annual #3: "The Judas Contract"

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 11:30 pm
“The Judas Contract” tends to stick in my mind, and maybe in yours too, as a standalone epic. That may not be entirely accurate. It details the mechanics of Terra’s betrayal, and throws in a few origins to boot. In that respect it’s a decent thriller with a nice chunk of Titans history. In the longer view, though, “TJC” and the three issues that precede it are about potential.

The plot of those first three issues is pretty simple. In The New Teen Titans #39 (February 1984), behind one of my all-time favorite covers, the Titans raid one of Brother Blood’s outposts and learn he’s planning to influence Congressional elections. Later, after a couple of scenes between Terra and Deathstroke that define their partnership (to say the least), Terra attends the meeting where her teammates finally reveal their secret identities to her. At that same meeting, Wally West retires from superheroics, and Dick Grayson retires from being Robin.

This doesn’t stop the Titans (in The New Teen Titans #40 (March 1984)) from (once again) infiltrating Blood’s headquarters and trying to stop his electioneering. However, the plan goes funny and a disguised Dick is mind-controlled by Blood into betraying his friends. In Tales of the Teen Titans #41 (April 1984), the Titans escape, mostly thanks to Terra, but are captured again, and Dick is trotted out again, only this time Blood wants him to throw the kill switch and he resists. By then, though, the president of Zandia has had it with Blood, and the Zandian army attacks Blood’s headquarters. Blood once again appears to be martyred, and once again it looks like that’s what his plan was all along.

We’re not going to spend a lot of time on the Blood stuff, because (a) it covers much of the same ground as the introductory Blood arc, and (b) it has almost nothing to do with the underlying Terra story. I will point out that the first Blood arc saw Robin tortured by “The Confessor,” which I thought was named after an old Joe Walsh song, and here Dick disguises himself as … Joe Walsh. Somewhere there’s a Glenn Frey joke struggling to get out….

Regardless, the Blood issues are something of a payoff for the Brotherhood of Evil/Zandia/Bethany Snow threads which had been given various shades of emphasis over the past year or so, and I can see how it fits into the series thus far. Even so, I get the feeling that it is more of Wolfman and Pérez winding up the subplots they’d begun over the book’s first two years, clearing the decks for what’s to come.

“The Judas Contract” itself has four parts. Part 1 (issue #42, May 1984) is told mostly from Tara’s perspective, showing the reader how much she hates the Titans. Part 2 (#43, June 1984) is told in flashback, after Dick survives Deathstroke’s attack and reconstructs how the other Titans were captured. Part 3 (#44, July 1984) gets into the origins of the Terminator, as told by his ex-wife Adeline; and also introduces Nightwing and Jericho. Part 4 (Annual #3, 1984) is the big finish, as the two “new” Titans rescue the others, Terra meets her fate, and the rest of Deathstroke’s past is revealed.

[A brief note about the change in the book’s title: if you don’t know the history already, essentially it had to do with the launch of a second New Teen Titans book, and the change was just to avoid confusion. More later, when we get into those stories.]

In hindsight, the Terra storyline doesn’t try to fool the reader too much. Almost from the beginning, the Titans saw the holes in Tara’s backstory, but they never quite put all the pieces together. As shown by the Trident story, the group relied for its deductions pretty heavily on Robin, who was too distracted by his own personal issues to vet Tara in any meaningful way. Dick’s big detective moments in those prefatory arcs came in Annual #2, when he figured out Adrian Chase was still alive, and #38, when he tracked down Donna’s family.

Indeed, in the longer view, “Who Is Donna Troy?” works as a decent capper to thirteen months’ worth of subplots and drama. It’s not only a chance for Dick to relax and throw himself into a personally fulfilling case, it’s also a tantalizing look at what Dick might have uncovered if he’d put as much effort into Tara’s background.

Of course, this plays into the overall theme of “potential.” Dick can’t investigate Tara because he’s been pulled in various directions for too long. The development of “Nightwing” thus allows Dick to concentrate more fully on leading the Titans. However, although Dick does put together the pieces of the Titans’ capture, it’s a little troubling that Adeline Wilson has to fill in the crucial factor of Terra’s betrayal. It’s a failure of imagination, perhaps; and perhaps also one that Dick’s harder-edged mentor would not have made. As of the Titans/Outsiders crossover, Batman hadn’t unmasked to his team yet. Still, that’s hindsight too, and probably not as accurate as we’d like to think.

It does illustrate the extent to which the Titans trusted Tara, even in light of her story’s holes. Indeed, as Tara points out, Raven tried to kill Kid Flash and the Brotherhood of Evil at various points in the recent past, and by extension might well have gone after the Titans themselves if Trigon’s nature had manifested itself any further.

Thus, Raven’s potential is pretty grim. Likewise, one of Starfire’s prominent traits has been her desire to cut loose and unleash her warrior spirit. The Titans have had to restrain her natural urges out of necessity, and she must now maximize her effectiveness within those limits. Cyborg tests his potential pretty explicitly in a workout scene in #42, trying to push his metal parts past their stated limits by developing what remains of his own muscles. Changeling’s potential manifests itself in his embryonic romance with Terra. (In fact, she encourages him in #42, saying “[the] only time anyone’s better ‘n you is when you let ’em be.”) Wonder Girl has a similarly bright future with her fiance, but this arc sees her potential more as team leader. Even Deathstroke, the villain of the piece, draws his abilities from maximizing his brainpower.

That leaves the two Titans who depart the team in this arc, Kid Flash and Terra. Both are, arguably, the most powerful Titans — Wally because, even slowed down, he still has all the powers of a Silver Age Flash; and Terra, because Wolfman and Pérez have given her almost limitless control over not just earth and rocks, but vulcanism too. Those extreme power levels are compared and contrasted, implicitly in Wally’s case and explicitly in Terra’s.

For Wally, his speed is the underlying reason behind his leaving the team — he’s too powerful to be used effectively. He misses the simple life of being a college student in Blue Valley and hanging out with his girl Frances Kane (who also chooses not to use her own powers), but we know that he can travel between Manhattan and the Midwest in an eyeblink, without breaking a sweat. This says two things about Wally: first, his “I wish I were home” schtick is either short-sighted or disingenuous; and second, if he’s so fast, why isn’t he more effective in a fight?

Both of these issues are handled by Marv and George’s notion that Wally is losing his speed (something that will be explored in much more depth years later, in Wally’s solo series), making his decision to leave the team more of a practical matter than an emotional one. Regardless, the bottom line is that, in dramatic terms, Wally has great potential and is unwilling to explore it (again, see Baron, Messner-Loebs, and Waid on Flash); and in real-world terms, his potential is so great that exploiting it fully would overshadow the rest of the team. Either way, Wally has to go. (I still say he could have come back as Dick’s secret weapon for the big finish, but maybe in the animated movie….)

Terra’s great sin is not really her betrayal of the team, although that plays into it. Instead, it’s her choice to let her hatred control her, and thus to let the beneficial aspects of her powers go to waste. Wolfman writes a pretty fantastic eulogy for Terra on the last page of her life, and we’ll get to that shortly. It stays just on the good side of florid and really drives home the point that Terra’s hatred should be met with pity.

One-dimensional though Terra’s motivations might be, she makes a fascinating foil for the Titans because she calls them on their b.s. Up to this point, the Titans had all been wearing deeper grooves in their own particular broken records:

— “I am sick of Earth and its strange repressions! Also, I am becoming codependent on my boyfriend’s mood swings!”
— “Strong emotions may aggravate my Trigon side!”
— “I use mildly offensive humor to cover up my emo!”

etc.

Terra is also a (perhaps unintentional) parody of many Titans’ subplots. She has a connection to another DC hero, even if it’s just Geo-Force of the Outsiders. She has a Bad Father figure in Deathstroke. Her past is mysterious, like Donna’s used to be. Like Starfire and Raven, she has to control her antisocial impulses. In short, she’d be perfect for the team, except she can’t stand any of them and counts the minutes until she can unload all her frustrations in one (literal) eruption. Perhaps not surprisingly, she tends to pick the most fights with the most emotional characters (Kory, Raven, Gar), and she works pretty well with the others (Dick, whenever he’s around, Donna, Vic). To the extent she has an actual bond with a teammate (other than her faux-romance with Gar, for which there was surprisingly little buildup, at least in my re-reading), it’s with Wally, the guy who wants to leave. Some more connective dialogue between them would have been nice.

The Terra/Terminator scenes are pretty disturbing at first, with a Lolita-esque, tarted-up Tara implying heavily that he’s been sleeping with a girl young enough to be too young for either of his sons. However, the training scene that follows is instructive. Deathstroke has taught her to explore the limits of her abilities, but as Terra starts to get more and more aggressive, thereby revealing ever-greater power levels, he starts to get worried, and our sympathies shift subtly to his side. Although Terra is, overall, the arc’s protagonist, we never get inside her head like we do with him, to say nothing of the Titans.

The training scene establishes Terra as almost literally a force of nature, able to tip a balance of power decisively. It foreshadows not only a similar scene in #42 where Terra goes medieval on Changeling, but also her eventual demise. It ends with a telling exchange: Deathstroke suggests that Terra needs to go back to the Titans, and she replies, “Damn them, Terminator. They’re sanctimonious do-gooders. I just wanna kill ’em all.”

He deflects this with, “Ixnay on the makeup. Cute girl super-heroes aren’t caught dead in it.” Taking a drag on her cigarette, her eyes hooded by garish makeup, Terra fairly snarls, “Yeah. An’ damn all cute girl super-heroes too!”

Deathstroke’s plan is layered with meaning. By bringing in the Titans, he fulfills his son Grant’s contract with the HIVE. You may remember Grant as the (original) Ravager, who was mad enough at the Titans for trashing his apartment and hastening the end of his dating Carol Sladky that he underwent HIVE super-soldier treatment after Deathstroke told them to shove it. Grant died fighting the Titans, as the super-soldier stuff burned out his body, and Deathstroke, blaming himself probably as much as the Titans, took over the contract. Thus, Deathstroke can’t help but be aware he’s sending another super-powered teenager after the Titans — so why does it feel like Deathstroke, in the end, got played by Terra?

Maybe because Deathstroke gets a big spotlight, with his origin story spread over significant chunks of Parts 3 and 4. Basically, Slade Wilson and Adeline Kane were senior officers in the Army together, she a trainer and he her star pupil. After volunteering for, yes, secret military experiments, Slade’s physical abilities improved dramatically, only stabilizing after the Army refused to take him back. Although Adeline thought he had turned to big-game hunting, he had already begun his Terminator career, with his first mission being to rescue his British colleague Wintergreen from the Viet Cong.

His other life caught up with the whole family when their younger son Joseph was kidnapped by “The Jackal” (Carlos?). Deathstroke rescued him, but not before the Jackal cut Joey’s throat, severing his vocal cords. Furious, Adeline tried to shoot Slade in the head, but thanks to his superhuman reflexes, he only lost one eye.

More to the point, Slade tells Adeline (just before he loses the eye) that he’s chosen his new life because “I haven’t been a full person since the Army kicked me out. I needed something. Being the Terminator is it.” See, he’s maximizing his potential! His executions (his term; he also says they never compromise the national security of the U.S. — and isn’t that a storyline ready to be written today…?) are just the proverbial lemonade!

Additionally, it should be noted that Deathstroke takes out all of the Titans except Dick and Raven, and does it by subterfuge — Cyborg gets trapped in an electrified chair, Donna and Gar are put to sleep, and Kory is zapped by a device that looks like a present. Deathstroke attacks Dick himself, and Terra defeats Raven one-on-one. This last was apparently a favor to Terra, who’d had it in for Raven I think since around #28. Deathstroke’s tactics therefore prevented readers from having visceral reactions to four separate Titan fights, which could each have featured scenes like (in Annual #3) his chopping off Cyborg’s hands. Deathstroke delivers the Titans to the HIVE whole, and (except for their captivity) unharmed.

Accordingly, when Terra sees that the captive Jericho is the same curly-haired blond kid from Slade’s family pictures, and starts mocking Deathstroke in front of all the HIVErs, naturally the reader might feel a bit more sympathy for the mercenary than for the duplicitous Titan. We certainly haven’t gotten into Terra’s head as much as Deathstroke’s. I don’t think Deathstroke knows about Joey’s Deadman-like powers, triggered by eye contact, but he can’t help but look at his son’s face … and thus, the Titans are freed, by a Terminator again influenced by his son.

Let’s return to Terra’s potential for a bit, because another facet of it is at the heart of “The Judas Contract.” Specifically, Terra’ s potential as a Titan drives the story. I said earlier that Marv and George didn’t try to put too much over on the reader, with more than a few Titans questioning Terra’s background. It may be overly cynical, but the story counts on the reader’s hope and faith that, under the accepted rules of heroic fantasy, Terra would have a last-minute epiphany and embrace the side of goodness and truth. Wolfman even says, in his introduction to the 1988 Judas Contract paperback, “I could [make Terra a ‘louse’] because comic book convention would demand that readers ignore all the evidence and assume she was a good girl.” Reinforcing the readers’ (presumed) assumptions were the Titans, whose collective combination of naivete, trust, and distraction allowed them to take Terra into their hearts.

When the Titans are freed, Terra naturally doesn’t understand that Jericho’s controlling Deathstroke — she thinks he’s turned against her, and this is the last straw. Whatever barriers controlled her powers or her id vanish as Terra falls into madness, lashing out at the Titans and Deathstroke equally, and sounding at various points like a jilted lover and a sociopath. Finally, she disappears under a shower of boulders, accompanied by this narrative:

Her name is Tara Markov and she is little more than sixteen years old. And due to the fault of no one but herself, she is insane.

No one taught her to hate, yet she hates … without cause, without reason.

No one taught her to destroy, yet she destroys … with glee, with relish.

Don’t look for reasons which do not exist — plainly, Tara Markov is what she is. And she has taken a great power and made it as corrupt as she.

Hers was the power over the Earth itself. She could have brought life to deserts, heat to the frozen tundra, food to starving millions.

She could have dammed raging rivers and funneled water to lands parched, dry, and dead. Her powers were limited only by the mind which controlled them.

A mind which sought not hope … not love … not life …

… but death.

And she found death. But not her enemies.’

Her own.

I’ve had my problems with Marv Wolfman’s writing, but that’s some darn fine comic-book prose. Annual #3 finishes with Tara’s funeral, and Joe Wilson’s thoughts of “tomorrow’s hopes and dreams.”

* * *

“The Judas Contract” also allowed Marv and George to remake the team in their own image. In his introduction to the 1988 paperback, Pérez observes that getting rid of Kid Flash and Robin gave them the freedom to do more with these characters. Indeed, Pérez calls Jericho an “artist’s character,” completely dependent on the artist to convey his thoughts through body language and sign language. (Pérez forbade Wolfman from using thought balloons, although if Jericho inhabited an unconscious body he could talk in its voice.)

As important a story as this was, it suffers somewhat in the art department from a variety of inkers who obscure Pérez’s meticulous lines. Pérez inked himself in issue #39 and part of #40. Regular inker Romeo Tanghal inked the rest of #40 and all of #41. Dick Giordano inks #42 and parts of #43, 44, and the Annual, with Mike DeCarlo inking the rest. Giordano and DeCarlo both have fairly distinctive styles that tend to come through regardless of who they’re inking, and neither of them overwhelm Pérez’s pencils, but the change is noticeable, and for me it’s always been a distraction.

Still, as with most of Pérez’s “big” work, his layouts and figures carry the day. This page, from #42, reinforces the issue’s theme of Tara spying on the Titans through her contact-lens cameras, and goes from Terra’s eyes pleading, to a camera POV, to Raven’s eyes accusing, to Deathstroke’s.

The one complaint I have is with Starfire, who for some reason comes off throughout the arc as pouty (not in a good way) and whiny; for example, her panels in Dick’s retirement scene, above. As I said with regard to the Trident story, in the duel of wits between Kory and Terra, I’m more on Terra’s side, but the Titans are more on Starfire’s. Really, though, she doesn’t have much to do in this arc beyond pine after Dick and fly around blasting things. She’s almost like a Powerpuff Girl gone horribly wrong … but maybe I’m overstating my case.

I do like the original Nightwing design, but perhaps it too only looked good when pencilled by Pérez. (Okay, Scott McDaniel in “Nightwing: Year One,” and maybe some others.) It’s a nice blend of superhero and acrobat, which is appropriate, and it fits in with the Batman aesthetic without being associated too closely with it. I don’t know if I like it better than the current version, which at times seems awfully generic, but it put in several useful years.

The Jericho costume … yeah, I don’t know. The muttonchops and curly hair make him look like Terry Long’s kid brother. The color scheme isn’t garish, but it’s not subtle either — aren’t blue, white, and purple associated with Mardi Gras? Joey’s powers are pretty cool, though, and the little “Contact!” captions that accompanied them are used to good dramatic effect. As for the name, I suppose a guy who turns immaterial so he can control other people’s bodies might like “the walls come tumblin’ down,” but it seems to take a couple of steps to make that connection.

* * *

This was a pretty difficult essay to write, even after spotting the major themes and the big structural changes to the team, because “The Judas Contract” is a simple story with a lot going on under the surface. I didn’t even have space to mention the cute ice-skating scene with Vic, Sarah Simms, and a punchline supplied by Changeling; the ominous portents surrounding Vic’s grandparents, or the much scarier animal-skull helmet Brother Blood sports. Also, Gar is captured by licking drugged envelopes (he licks them, they don’t lick him — this isn’t Grant Morrison), so if only Susan Ross had read Titans #43, she might be alive today. I’m sure I’ve forgotten other big aspects of this arc, but sheesh! this post is long enough.

“The Judas Contract” deserves to be remembered as the monumental payoff to some eighteen months’ worth of serial superhero comics. It can be enjoyed on its own, but anyone who’s “lived through it,” so to speak, probably doesn’t soon forget the experience.

Next: Payback … against Bernadette Peters?

August 20, 2006

Terra Who? and "Who Is Donna Troy?": New Teen Titans #s 35-38 and Batman and the Outsiders #5

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 2:45 am
In The New Teen Titans #34, Marv Wolfman and George Perez revealed a side to Tara Markov that was sure to shock readers who had been following the plucky young heroine for the past several months. What’s more, the Titans were completely clueless about Tara’s real motives, having decided already to tell her all their secrets at the first possible opportunity. The team was already beset with internal problems, and this latest development could either mean its end, or an opportunity for a new beginning.

Naturally, Marv and George sat on Terra for a while.

Now, to be fair, Perez probably wanted to be involved in the issues that decided Terra’s fate, and his plate was getting pretty full — the just-completed Titans Annual, probably some SwordQuest tie-in comics for Atari, and a little thing called JLA/Avengers (speaking of delayed gratification). Also, the book had a few more matters to take care of before Terra’s other shoe would drop.

These issues don’t quite forget about the major development of issue #34, but neither do they expand upon it. Although they’re not really “inventory” issues, in the larger scheme of things, you’d think the focus would be a little different.

Keith Pollard pencils New Teen Titans #35 (October 1983), a hostage drama involving Sarah Simms, her psycho ex-fiance Mark Wright, and Cyborg, Changeling, and Raven. (See, Terra’s not even in the issue.) Mark used to be a military sniper, so he’s pretty successful at holding off the cops, and even manages to shoot Vic in one of the unarmored areas on his shoulder.

The upshot of the story is that Mark doesn’t want to lose Sarah like he lost his previous girlfriend. For a while it looks like Mark might have killed her, albeit by accident, but at the end it’s revealed that no, she’s just “dead to him.” While I don’t think this backstory would have been a woman-in-refrigerator situation, exactly, it feels like Mark’s crazy was toned down at the last minute. Assuming, of course, that it’s somehow less crazy for a guy to take someone hostage for fear that he wouldn’t, uh, not kill her like he didn’t kill his girlfriend before. Yeah, that makes the ending much easier to take.

Anyway, the three Titans save Sarah and console nutty ol’ Mark, and Vic finally gets to make up for her being kidnapped in #10. Fun fact: Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard worked together on The Amazing Spider-Man, so guess what Changeling changes into this issue? You guessed it — Seabiscuit!

New Teen Titans #36 (November 1983) wraps up the plot threads from issue #32’s introduction of Thunder & Lightning. Remember, the kids were left with STAR Labs so their powers could be studied and maybe wouldn’t end up killing them. Apparently “studying,” as interpreted by DC go-to scientist Dr. Jenet Klyburn, means “strap to a table and shoot with high-powered lasers.” It’s a new field of study, Dr. K muses.

As it happens, the lasers aren’t so good at “probing” T&L, and overload their powers, or something. A brief fight ensues, stopping when both sides realize it won’t get them anywhere. Raven then offers — despite the extreme risk of unleashing her Trigon side — to try and cure the boys in her soul-self. It envelops them, and soon becomes all tentacle-y, lashing out at the Titans. When things calm down, T&L tell the group that the tentacled thing was a manifestation of their father, and he’s being held prisoner. They don’t know it’s by a HIVE branch, which doesn’t like holding Dad too much itself.

It won’t be their problem much longer, though — the Titans and T&L start wrecking the place. The HIVErs have gotten some control over Dad, and he unwillingly attacks the teenagers. Did I mention that Dad’s really a centuries-old alien who apparently looks otherwise human, except when he’s an 8-foot dinosaur-thing with one eye, two big fangs, and a pair of tentacles? Only T&L’s powers can stop him, and he pleads with them to kill him. They do, and are suitably horrified, but Robin tries to ease the pain by telling them they “freed” him. Apparently he dies a human, because his touching final metamorphosis happens off-panel.

I therefore get the feeling that, for the second issue in a row (and the second non-Perez issue … hmmm) the ending was “toned down” to make it less disturbing. Still, T&L clearly had to deal with a Bad Father in the classic New Teen Titans mold, and his final fate makes their story that much more hardcore. Raven came the closest to “killing” her BF, but she only put him in limbo. The issue ends with T&L saying yeah, they’ll probably use their powers for good — but first they’ll tell their mother they love her.

Subplot watch: Robin thinks everyone hates him because of his involvement with Adrian Chase, and maybe he doesn’t deserve to lead the Titans. Kid Flash is still quitting, and he still hates Raven for trying to kill him. Raven, as mentioned above, is still filled with worry about letting her Trigon flag fly. (Pollard does a good job conveying the group’s support of Raven, just by arranging the group around her in close, comforting poses.) As for Terra, there is nary a mention of her real agenda, for the second straight month. Wally and Raven make up this issue, however, in a fairly understated couple of scenes. Before that, though, Wally gets a silent scene with Donna, where she comforts him after he lashes out at Raven.

FYI, according to a lettercolumn, George Perez had to take these issues off after getting very busy with a number of projects, including the original JLA/Avengers. Regular inker Romeo Tanghal finished Pollard’s pencils, giving the issues a fairly consistent look. Pollard and Perez had worked together on a few issues of Justice League of America, so their styles were hardly incompatible.

Perez returned in fine fashion for New Teen Titans #37 (December 1983), the first part of a crossover with Batman and the Outsiders #5 (written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Jim Aparo). Even the jokes work, and that’s saying something. It’s the Fearsome Five vs. the Titans and Outsiders, so #37 promises more main characters than even the Titans/Omega Men or Titans/JLA issues, and Perez, of course, delivers.

The plot is this: Gizmo breaks his Fearsome Five teammates out of prison, although nobody’s really happy about having Dr. Light along again. Light just wants to do a big robbery, but Shimmer and Mammoth remember a Dr. Jace from back in Australia who was experimenting with giving ordinary people super-powers. The F5 decide to kidnap Jace and force her to augment their own powers. (I’m not quite sure how much “augmentation” a transmuter like Shimmer or a psionic like Psimon could use, but whatever.) This ends up changing into “Dr. Jace creates an army of lava-men,” probably because that was more practical.

Dr. Jace also gave Terra and her brother Brion Markov, a/k/a Geo-Force of the Outsiders, their powers, so when the F5 kidnap her, she sends out a distress call on receivers built into their costumes. After the Traditional Superhero Misunderstanding Fight, the groups team up. (In a sensible touch, parties on both sides who should know each other well enough actually say, “Hey, I know [him/her]….”)

However, as you might have guessed by now, the real through-line of the story is the Batman/Robin relationship, and it’s handled very well. It begins with a scene at Wayne Manor, where Dick tells Bruce he wants to end their partnership — not their friendship, Dick is careful to point out, and Dick’s not giving up his Robin identity. His experiences with Chase have clarified the differences between him and his mentor. (I’m not sure this is quite fair, because I don’t believe Batman — especially the ’80s Batman — is quite the Punisher-type that Chase’s Vigilante is, but Dick might not think that either.)

Once the two teams start tracking the Five, Batman takes charge. Given how Perez draws him, it’s hard not to see why. His Batman is all shadows and sharp lines, and he dominates a scene. It’s different somehow from the earlier Batman appearance with the JLA in issue #4, perhaps because there Batman was part of the Justice League, and therefore one of a few higher-profile heroes. As among the Titans and Outsiders, though, he’s BATMAN!, like, OMG!!!11 It helps prove Marv & George’s point, too — next to Batman, Dick is “just” Robin, and it’s hard not to make Robin automatically subordinate. I’m a little surprised some of the more experienced Titans and Outsiders didn’t fall into an old habit of assuming Robin would follow his lead. I think Wonder Girl and Kid Flash might even have done this despite their relationships with Dick.

Anyway, this carries through until the big fight in the Empire State Building, when Batman barks out an order that would end up misusing a couple of characters. Robin calls him on it, says he’s better at leading a team than Batman is, and takes charge. For his part, Batman respects Robin’s authority and lets him do his thing. The Fearsome Five are defeated, and Batman acknowledges Robin’s leadership skills. “You lead the Titans well, Robin — I guess even the teacher can learn from his pupil … his former pupil!”

“Thanks, Batman!” Robin replies. “But you know what they say … a pupil is only as good as his teacher … and I had the best there is!”

Mike Barr wrote those words, in case we need to reconcile them with the more “official” story from Wolfman & Perez. Not long after this, of course, Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty have told us that Dick got “fired” again, this time for good. But that’s a while in the future….

Since the plot concerns Terra and Geo-Force, they get a few sweet moments of sibling bonding, although at the very end Terra worries that she doesn’t want her brother to “go down with” the Titans when she betrays them. So, in both issues, there are reminders that Terra’s a rotten egg ready to crack, just to keep readers up to speed.

The last issue of this particular batch is New Teen Titans #38 (January 1984), “Who Is Donna Troy?” Fittingly enough for us, as #35 focused only on three Titans, this spotlights only Dick and Donna. It still packs an emotional wallop, because despite Dick’s narration about his relationship with Batman, at its core it’s the story of a woman who finds herself. Because Dick narrates, we see his detective work, and we get a little quasi-purple prose about his own abiding (platonic) love for Donna, but we also see her reactions to each new discovery.

The issue is a paen to the idea of “Donna Troy,” a beautiful young woman who started life passed around from family to family, but who was always loved. It’s not hard to imagine that someone who’s always received that treatment — and who, in fact, was an Amazon princess, right? — would start to wonder if there were anything in her past that could bring all that down. There’s little of that here, in a story that doesn’t put Donna on a pedestal as much as it reassures her.

There’s also the tendency to see Donna as Marv Wolfman’s idealized woman, through the lens of Terry Long as Marv’s somewhat self-effacing stand-in. However, I think that’s an unnecessarily contorted view of this story. Its pathos is balanced by the routines not only of Dick’s forensics, but also a few scenes of the characters traveling.

Perez and Tanghal do a great job with this issue. Tanghal’s inks seem exceptionally tight, such that it almost looks like Perez inked his own work. (He might well have inked the figures, I don’t know.) The noirish opening and closing scenes are rendered mostly in shadow, suggesting a downbeat detective story that counterbalances Donna’s growing elation. In fact, for his part Dick is pretty even-tempered throughout, smiling only at the end when he reflects on his work.

So, who is Donna really? Well, it starts with a battered old doll that Dick discovers in an old coal bin in the soon-to-be-demolished apartment building where Wonder Woman found Donna. (Donna last visited in issue #1.) Scraps of the doll’s dress reveal writing that, according to Dick’s computer, might have said “HELLO MY NAME IS DONNA.”

That leads to a toymaker in Newport News, Virginia (right down the road! w00t!) who remembers the doll. (It has orange skin and curly auburn hair, and looks disturbingly Tamaranean.) He fixed up all the dolls for the kids at the orphanage, so from there Dick finds the orphanage’s former owner, in a Florida nursing home. Dick and Donna visit, Ms. Cassidy remembers the doll, and tells Donna about her real mother, Dorothy Hinckley. Ms. Cassidy also remembers that the Staceys adopted Donna.

It’s not too long before Donna’s hugging her adoptive mother fiercely, in the front yard of Fay Evans (nee Stacey)’s Newport News home. I really like this page and how it flows into the next one, because Perez and Tanghal absolutely nail Donna’s quick trip from peppy nostalgia to complete emotional collapse:


So who was in the fire that gutted the old apartment building? Fay’s husband Carl Stacey died in an accident, and Fay basically got pressured by a crooked lawyer (not a redundancy) into selling Donna as a black-market baby. Robin tracks down the lawyer in prison, uses a little of the Bat-mojo on him, and gets out of him that a furnace exploded before the deal for Donna could go down. That’s about the only scandal in Donna’s past, at least according to this story. “WIDT?” also skirts the question of Donna’s paternity, saying it’s not important. Rather than this being a plot hole left open for later exploitation, though, I tend to think that Marv & George knew they had a good enough issue without it, and chose to address it thusly rather than gum up the works with it.

Again, I’m sure there are a couple of different ways to mock “Who Is Donna Troy,” or to look at it as the biggest step in the idealization of a character conceived as an impossible fantasy (Wonder Woman’s imaginary childhood) and given life by mistake (the first Titans editor didn’t realize she didn’t exist). There’s a strong undercurrent of irony and metacommentary running beneath this story, and it’s entirely possible that Donna herself, with all the goodwill she’s generated from fans, is nothing more than the coalescence of that goodwill — optimism given form, as it were. However, even with all of that, my experience with the story is that it does humanize Donna. Its emphasis is on a series of Oprah-worthy tearjerkers, but darn if they’re not skillfully paced and masterfully depicted. When Dick returns the Donna doll, fully repaired, to her owner, I found myself getting a little misty-eyed. Call me a sucker, but I bought into this story almost unexpectedly.

What about next month, though? Could The New Teen Titans get any better?

Three words: “The Judas Contract.”

August 13, 2006

Terra Incognito: New Teen Titans #s 32-34 and Annual #2

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 7:55 pm
In terms of plot, New Teen Titans #32 (June 1983) is pretty unremarkable. It’s the story of two Vietnamese brothers, Siamese twins Gan and Tavis (or “Thunder and Lightning”), who use their weather-control powers to bust up Saint Louis looking for an American ex-GI. Considering this was the early ’80s, it’s not too far of a stretch to suppose the boys had a personal connection with Lt. Walter Williams, and in fact I doubt few were surprised to learn he’s their dad. At least for now, Williams isn’t a Bad Father, but his genetic experiments gave them their powers, which are also killing them.

Gan and Tavis think their powers came from their mom’s exile to a mystic island (shades of Arella) where they were separated. The local shaman said their dad’s blood would cure them, so they came to the States looking for him. However, the Army has no record of him in the ‘Nam because officially, he wasn’t there. Much of the issue consists of G & T fighting the Army and/or the Titans, all the while pleading for their dad and warning everyone they can’t control their powers. The issue ends with the brothers referred to STAR Labs, and a few plot threads (including Dad’s whereabouts) left hanging until a promised follow-up. And that, my friends, may be the shortest plot synopsis I’ve done for these here recaps.

That’s because the real meat of this issue is in the Titans’ interactions. Augmented by Speedy, Terra, and Frances Kane, the group’s headed from Zandia, where by the way Raven just tried to kill them all. It’s a tense flight: Dick’s ready to quit, Raven says she should quit, Wally (shooting her a dirty look) silently agrees, and Terra’s mad no one will tell her their secret identities. Before they all go their separate ways, Starfire blasts Speedy when he tries to kiss her, so that’s pretty funny. Wolfman and Perez do a great Speedy, I have to say. Anyway, Robin’s off to Gotham, Speedy goes to Washington, and Fran returns to Blue Valley before the Titans face Thunder & Lightning. In another bit of subplot maintenance, Donna and Vic compare notes on her potential engagement to Terry (she still hasn’t said yes yet) and Sarah Simms’ apparent engagement to someone other than Vic.

And that’s issue #32 — pretty straightforward, with the team divisions taking a backseat to a couple of antagonists who could have been Titans themselves. New Teen Titans #33 (July 1983) is also pretty decent on its own terms, with a still Robin-less group trying to figure out the mystery behind the death of new villain Trident. Three pairs of Titans each faced Trident, but outside of costume and powers, there seem to be no commonalities between any of their encounters. Leave it to Koriand’r, who hears about 5 minutes’ worth of recap, to solve the mystery (SPOILER!) it was three different guys, and when one betrayed the others, they iced him.

This issue has even less macro-plot advancement than last time, but it makes up for that in little moments. Aqualad appears at the very beginning of the issue to haul Dead Trident out of the river, and stops just short of asking “do I leave my trash on your doorstep?” Kid Flash and Terra bond while trying to stop a Trident from trashing a drive-in movie (showing E.T.). Changeling turns into a shark to “attack” Terra in the swimming pool, so she socks him in the nose. Starfire, looking for Robin, finds red-haired pre-Crisis Jason Todd at Wayne Manor instead. Terra gets scared that the Titans will kick her off the team. Finally, we learn that Robin is back with Adrian Chase, trying to make drug charges stick against mobster Anthony Scarapelli. (You’ll remember him from the “Runaways” arc.)

Since a lot of this issue takes place with the Titans lounging around comparing notes, Perez’s skill at portraying “casual” almost goes unnoticed, but that in itself is a compliment. An early poolside scene in Titans’ Tower recalls a similar one at Steve Dayton’s mansion in #2, but unlike that one, Perez has the characters move more, swimming through panels and even popping up in each other’s scenes. There is motion, but it’s the motion of relaxation, if that makes sense, and it’s choreographed pretty well. (Oh, and by the way — Cyborg in “casual mode” apparently means Cyborg without the utility belt.)

The only glitches are in Raven’s fight scenes, where apparently she has the power to change clothes while teleporting; and in a later scene that stops the issue dead. After Kory tells the group duh, it’s more than one guy, Terra calls her “golden globes” and questions her intelligence. In the next few panels, Vic and Donna jump down Terra’s throat for being insensitive, and Kory laments that on Tamaran, what’s in your heart matters more than your degree. Donna and Kory then hug it out.

It’s not that Terra wasn’t rude, but Kory taking offense here always seemed kind of disproportionate, even whiny, to me. For one thing, Kory has never been the thinker of the group, consistently proud of letting her emotions guide her. Furthermore, the Titans’ banter is filled with good-natured ribbing, on the order of “rust-bucket” and “salad-head.” No jabs at intelligence, true, but it’s not like they never tease each other. Finally, in this very issue, Terra got only mildly rebuked for suggesting that Trident’s death was a no-harm, no-foul circumstance. Spending more time (and more page space) making sure she didn’t hurt Kory’s feelings therefore seemed misplaced, and disrupted the issue’s flow to a greater extent than it really should have.

Perhaps to make it up to her, the Titans throw Terra a 16th birthday party in New Teen Titans #34 (August 1983). Tara says she’s “never had a birthday party before,” which is kind of suspicious given that she didn’t spend all her time either with the Titans or being held hostage by terrorists. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself, since this issue deserves a bit more attention.

Pages 1 and 2 reintroduce Slade “Deathstroke” Wilson and his manservant Wintergreen. Beefcake shots of Slade in a Speedo are perhaps the highlight of the sequence, as Slade ruminates on his next assignment (“Project ‘T'”), his kids (Grant died in issue #2, but here’s a photo of the curly-haired other one), and his wife (“one helluva marksman,” in a panel that seems to emphasize his eyepatch).

Pages 3-4 begin Tara’s party, but when the singing stops, Kid Flash ambles, almost unnoticed, into another room. Tara’s lost in thought too, although she complains again that she still hasn’t been let fully into the team’s confidences. A narrative caption establishes that Tara’s been with the group for “several months” (officially since #30, which was New Year’s Eve), and while it doesn’t seem like that long, reading the issues in a batch, this issue itself plays a little funny with the timeline.

Case in point: when we left Robin and Adrian Chase last issue, they were smashing through a window at Anthony Scarapelli’s mansion. Now, on pages 5-6, it’s morning, and while Deathstroke’s covering the Speedo and the Titans are celebrating Tara, Robin and Chase are fighting Scarapelli’s goons. Why, you ask? It comes out that Chase, the district attorney, has a warrant to search the mansion for any illegal guns. Scarapelli doesn’t have a gun license, so when he pulls a gun on Chase, that’s apparently enough for Robin, the deputized law enforcement official, to arrest him.

From my hazy memories of criminal law and procedure classes (and old “Law & Order” episodes), there are many problems with this plan, not the least of which is Chase’s insertion of himself right in the middle of the facts. Scarapelli’s defense attorney could at least argue that Chase’s vendetta against Scarapelli has tainted the investigation into Scarapelli’s “legitimate business activities” enough to get Chase off the case and perhaps get a change of venue. Speaking of venue, I thought Robin was only a deputy of the Gotham City Police Department, although spending time in NYC with the Titans, he might have gotten deputized by the NYPD as well. Still, I wouldn’t think that a Gotham cop could make an arrest for a New York crime, but that’s getting a little outside my expertise.

In any event, this little exchange confirms for Robin that Chase is muy loco, and at the bottom of page 6 we head back to the party. Tara is really playing the “I had a hard life” tune on the world’s smallest violin, but Wonder Girl (“We know your parents were killed, but that’s not unique in this group”), Starfire (“I was a slave for almost five years”) and Raven put it in perspective.

On her way out the door to meet Terry Long, Wonder Girl stops by a mopey Kid Flash. The Titans have been using code names throughout, but when he reveals he’s leaving the group, she responds with “Wally,” and he with “Donna.” It’s a nice moment, with Wally telling her “you always seem to know what to say and do.” Thus is Donna’s queen-of-nice reputation solidified.

On page 8, Deathstroke stakes out his Wall Street target. This gives Donna enough time to get to Terry’s “city community college” classroom on page 9, and accept his proposal in front of the brazen little hussy who wants some “private tutoring … just you and me. Oh, and the Greeks, of course.” No time for you, tramp; Terry has to smooch his barely-legal fiancee! (To be fair, Wolfman and Perez might well have intended Donna to be 19 at this point, and “married at 19” does sound a smidge better than “married at 18,” but not by much. Oh, and Terry is a community-college professor? How did I fail to notice that over these many, many years?)

While Donna and Terry walk through the park on page 10 (next to the Elderly Couple Who Still Remember Young Love), back at Titans’ Tower, the party’s winding down, and the airing of the grievances has begun. Tara’s revved up her angry body language, all finger-pointy and adrenaline-charged: “Either I’m a Titan and I get to know everything, or I walk.” After Changeling says something that basically boils down to “oh, g’wan,” Tara amends her threat to “one week” — and then she’s outta there! “Mebbe the JLA’ll hire me.” Raven and Starfire try to help too, but just as quickly, she’s feeling rejected again: “Lord, I can’t take it anymore. I’ve been kicked outta everything I ever really wanted.”

The phone gets Gar out of the drama. It’s Sarah Simms, hoping to plead with Vic to save her from her deluded, abusive ex-boyfriend Mark, who thinks he’s still engaged to her. However, because Vic believed Mark’s fantasy about said engagement, he’s mad at Sarah and won’t take her call. No problem — Sarah knees Mark in his special area (FAM!) and throws him out of her apartment. Aaand we’re up to the top of page 13 … but let’s go back to Tara’s tantrum.

Honestly, the moment she said “JLA,” I think a lot of readers in the Titans’ place would have said “Okay, right this way to the teleport tube! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” Now, there are good in-story reasons why they didn’t do that, among them the oft-repeated notion that they are Their Own People, not beholden to their League mentors. Furthermore, the Titans appear to be all about creating new familial bonds to replace or supplant the ones fractured by their troubled childhoods — which, incidentally, helps explain Wally’s imminent departure. They do want to “hug it out,” and convince Tara to stay, almost as if her rejection of them would start another cycle of “what’s wrong with us?” Why indeed wouldn’t Tara Markov, little match girl practically straight from Dickens, with the power to manipulate volcanoes, want to stay with such a supercool group as the New Teen Titans? Conversely, why wouldn’t the Titans, who have known Tara for lo these many months, want to take her into their bosom? (Insert Starfire joke here.)

Therefore, the whole thing seems kind of preordained, even before Deathstroke shows up on the viewscreen, demanding the Titans trade themselves for an anonymous stockbroker (just like Sarah Simms in #10). Terra and Changeling take the call, and Gar’s ready to go, but Terra knocks him out and races off on her own. Wally watches her go (“Maybe she’s found someone she hasn’t insulted today. Strange kid.”) but then he hears Gar call for help….

Terra gets pages 15-17 alone fighting the Terminator, but lucky for her the other Titans appear on page 18. Unfortunately, on page 19 Deathstroke gets the drop on a slightly-slower Kid Flash, knocking him cold. With a sword at the speedster’s throat, things look grim, but then Terra buries Deathstroke in a mound of earth and Starfire rescues Kid Flash. Deathstroke vanishes in an explosion, and the other Titans congratulate Terra. Kid Flash saved her life on page 18, and now she’s returned the favor. Tears in her eyes, she excuses herself.

At the top of page 21, Cyborg, Changeling, Kid Flash, and Starfire all agree that Terra should be a full member of the team. However, one panel later, we’re back in the apartment where Terra told Gar she’d been held captive. “They swallowed everything,” she tells the shadowy figure she meets there. “They didn’t know it’s all been a set-up. They didn’t suspect the terrorists work for you. They don’t suspect that I’ve been planted in their stupid group.” And there, in the lamplight, is Deathstroke.

(I know, at least 95% of you knew that was coming, but I’m taking this at face value!)

The rest of page 22 has Robin chewing out Chase over being used. After he storms out of Chase’s apartment, Chase’s wife Doris worries about their safety. Also, look at this clown doll Uncle Arthur sent our boy Adam!

“My God, Doris — I don’t have an uncle…”

BOOM!!!

And with that, we take a break from Terra’s story for New Teen Titans Annual #2 (1983). It’s what the TV folks would call a backdoor pilot, in which a character is introduced to be spun off into his own series. Here the character is the new Vigilante, a cross between the Punisher (gritty gun-toting urban crimefighter) and Deathstroke (mercenary with a sleek Perez-designed costume), and most of the story services his origin.

As backdoor pilots go, it’s not bad, although it does put the Terra subplot on the back burner. I wonder if this Annual was meant to be the resolution of Terra’s story, but the logistics of launching the new Vigilante series knocked Terra out of the spotlight for another several months. Probably not, since the Annual does advance Robin’s subplot about his differences from Batman, and that plays into the Terra plot too. In other subplot maintenance, Raven finds out she’s been barred from Azarath forever, I suppose for calling them a bunch of do-nothing peaceniks back around issue #5.

With his family dead from the bombing, Chase leaves the country to recuperate. The Annual’s main plot finds Robin taking up Chase’s cause, only slightly less willing to bend the law to bring Scarapelli to justice. However, he’s chastised by Wonder Girl, who says the Titans won’t break the law for him. Scarapelli has problems of his own — targeting Chase has put him in the doghouse with Donna Omicidio, the godmother (?) of the local mob, who wants to schedule a performance review … with extreme prejudice, if you get my drift. To protect himself (mostly from Omicidio, he says), Scarapelli goes to the Monitor for some super-powered muscle. Said muscle ambushes the Titans, who really get taken to the cleaners before being saved by a mysterious sniper. Later, at the “performance review,” Scarapelli’s Monitor-supplied shock troops ambush Omicidio’s men, but the Titans try to calm things down. Scarapelli gets away to his mansion and is accosted there by the sniper, revealed as that guy in the black suit from the cover. He unmasks before Scarapelli and (surprise!) it’s Adrian Chase, ready to gun down Scarapelli. Robin stops him, but Greedo — I mean, Scarapelli — shoots first, wounding Robin and Chase and causing Chase to ventilate Scarapelli reflexively. On the last page, a news anchor asks whether this signals a “new kind of hero.” You Make The Call….

At first this feels like a random ’80s “rogue cop catches drug dealers who hide behind technicalities” movie, but the Titans’ commitment to the law ends up winning out. Chase does save just about every Titan’s life with his sniper rifle, and while he is therefore presented somewhat heroically, the issue isn’t very rah-rah about his activities. Of perhaps more interest to readers today is the inclusion of the Monitor in his early supervillain-supplier role. (His “job-referral service” line gives a new meaning to “Monster-dot-com”….) One of the mercenaries he supplies to Scarapelli is Cheshire, who may be the most familiar (other than the Titans) character in the whole issue.

The other super-mercenaries are pretty forgettable, even comical. There’s Scorcher, the fire-fetishist and Slasher, the fanfic writer. Tanker looks like the Crushinator. Spear is a Mr. T wannabe, so he gets called racial insults (really) by Bazooka, a bubblegum-chewing bigot with yet another obvious weapon of choice. Bazooka is really named Joseph, so that should give you an idea of the issue’s weird balance between grim ‘n’ gritty and goofy humor. By the way, Chase kills Slasher and Scorcher.

I leave you with a page that not only spotlights Slasher just before her untimely demise, it begins with one of the more … intriguing panels George Perez may ever have drawn for a mainstream comic:

As you can see, for the most part subplots connect these fairly disparate issues. That will continue for the next few months, before everything comes to a head and Wolfman and Perez finally finish almost four years’ worth of building their ideal Titans team.

Next: George Perez takes a break, Thunder & Lightning return, and the (first) definitive origin of Donna Troy!

June 9, 2006

Crappy New Year: New Teen Titans #s 28-31

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 2:20 pm

Lots of plot in these four issues, most of it directed towards upending the team by introducing new players and turning around the personalities of the old ones. With these issues, the book really got into a soap-operatic groove. Who will be the newest Titan? Why is the Brotherhood of Evil after Brother Blood? Is Robin wound too tight/stretched too thin? Will Wally quit? Has Raven turned evil? What of Donna’s love for Terry? And will Speedy get to enjoy his lunch?

After opening with 3 1/2 pages of Changeling failing to capture Terra, New Teen Titans #28 (February 1983) begins the plot in earnest with a trip to Zandia, where the Church of Brother Blood is headquartered. The Brotherhood of Evil attacks Blood Central, because (as discussed a couple of issues later, but not until then) it wants Zandia for itself, and Blood runs the place.

Phobia softening up the control-room techies takes about a half a page longer than it should. Perez goes for “creeping horror” when “quick strikes” might have worked better. The sequence does introduce us to Sister Sade, which I don’t think is pronounced “Smooth Operator.” There’s also Sister Soul and Brother Fear, and really, Marv and George, these names make “Darth Maul” sound like it’s derived from Tolkien’s Elvish.

(Someday I will do a post on the logistics of the Church of Blood, or at least its application for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.)

4 1/2 pages of hallucinations, bad accents (“Ach! I hate vhat I haf become, but I use vhat I now am for der good of der Brotherhood!”) and Bloodite death later, we’re back in NYC with Donna and Kory. The latter is worried because her man’s been all grumpy and tense, and sure enough, when the Teen Wonder appears in Donna’s doorway, he looks kind of slacker-stalker creepy.

Honestly, he almost looks like he’ll take a swing at either of them if given half a chance. However, Wally is drawn with the same kind of blank, bland, squinty stare a couple of pages later, and he’s just supposed to be bored, so maybe this is Perez’ and/or Tanghal’s “tired” expression. Donna leaves and Dick and Kory decide to stay in.
Indeed, after two pages of Changeling finally defeating Terra, it’s nighttime and Dick and Kory have apparently had The Sex. (I don’t think this is their first time together, but it is the first the book’s acknowledged it.) He apologizes for his attitude and they head off to meet Adrian Chase about Brother Blood.

Over at Titans’ Tower, Wally (in the aforementioned squinty scene) wants to talk to Raven about how hard it is to juggle college and superheroics. This echoes, consciously or not, Donna’s earlier observation about Dick a) going to college (but didn’t he drop out before issue #1?), b) leading the Titans, and c) working with Batman — but the difference here, and the reason Wally comes off all whiny, is that Dick doesn’t have superspeed. Wally, I hate to say it, but next to your speed-reading, attention-deficient cousin, you sound like an idiot. Focus, man! It’s not like you’re going to win the lottery! If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up fixing cars for the rest of your life!
 

Then again, Wally does explain his costume ring to Raven (after disclosing “I never really wanted to be Kid Flash” — somewhere, Mark Waid grabs his chest), so maybe he took a bad blow to the head. The two join Gar and Terra in the conference room, but Terra wants no part of Raven, and Raven gets bad vibes from Terra. After a brief escape attempt, and in a somewhat touching scene, Terra tearfully unmasks, explaining how she’s being coerced into evil by terrorists holding her parents hostage.

Meanwhile, Donna meets Marcia Long, Terry’s ex-wife. Marcia’s got razor-sharp cheekbones and an “is this your little chippie?” icy stare. Remember Mark Greene’s ex-wife from “ER?” Kind of like that, but if Mark were sleeping with Lucy Knight. Awk-ward!

Although the Titans easily catch Terra’s captors, she goes nuts when one of them reveals her parents are already dead. As the issue ends, Gar comforts Terra while Cyborg and Raven worry.

New Teen Titans #29 (March 1983) finds Brother Blood in his Massachusetts church, preparing for the Brotherhood’s attack. They’ve just finished destroying all his churches in Europe, and now they’re headed across the big water in a stolen Blood jet, planning to abduct Raven. Unfortunately, they let some blond Bloodite (who looks like a Brother Chip) pilot the plane.

How’d that work, exactly? They storm aboard, threaten to fricasee Chip if he doesn’t fly them to New York, and then … adjourn to the passenger cabin? For hijackers, they sure have a lot of trust in the hijacked. As you’d expect, Chip, revealed as a robot when Plasmus finally starts some more threatening, points the plane straight into the ocean. Don’t worry, the Brotherhood’s OK.

A few pages in Titans’ Tower set up the issue’s emotional beats: Dick’s still pushing himself, Donna’s frustrated because she doesn’t know her real parents, and Wally’s in love with Raven – but Raven tells him to forget it, because if she loses control, Trigon gets out. Donna flies off to be with Terry.

Leading into the big fight at the end of the issue is a genially funny sequence where the main cast parades through the kitchen past Speedy, who’s fixed himself a sandwich and some soup. He interacts with each in one way or another, but he just keeps eating.

First, for flirting with Starfire, he gets rebuked by Robin: “Stay away from Kory. She’s not yours.” Robin and Kory (obviously descended from the House of Enabl’r) leave for another Adrian Chase meeting. Changeling and Terra then recap their own subplots, reminding us that her story doesn’t quite add up. Gar tries to play the team-spirit card, but Terra says she’s not joining. When Frances Kane (!) lands on Titans Island, everyone heads outside. Frances doesn’t want her magnetic powers, and Wally thinks this could be his way out of the group. Speedy, naturally, flirts with Fran, but to no effect. Cyborg, unfazed (as usual) by the angst around him, bounds off over the river.

As Speedy finally finishes his soup, the Brotherhood of Evil teleports in. Phobia puts the whammy on Raven, making her think Trigon’s killed Wally. This tricks Raven into attacking Wally, plunging him into worlds of hurt. Frances and Speedy subdue the Brotherhood, and Raven backs off, but too late — Wally’s felt Trigon’s evil in Raven. He says Raven knew she would have killed him, and what’s more, she enjoyed it. Issue #30 (April 1983) picks up right there, with the Brotherhood coming to and taking out Speedy, Wally, and Fran.

Over at the apartment where Terra was held hostage, she shows Changeling her new costume, which she’d only wear when she was free. Although earlier in the day she was telling Gar she wasn’t joining, once she gets the new duds on, she asks “Am I Titans material or what?”

Robin, Starfire, and Chase meet with a suddenly-cooperative Bethany Snow, who’s actually setting them up but who doesn’t fool Robin or Chase. Snow explains the Blood/Brotherhood feud, and further that Blood wants to fix three special elections to insure Congress arms Zandia to fight the Brotherhood. Robin saves Snow from a sniper, but the sniper gets away. Snow, “spooked,” swears to be good, and says the Brotherhood’s after Raven. Hearing this, Robin and Starfire streak away.

At Sarah Simms’ apartment, Cyborg finds nice-guy Mark Wright, her fiancé. She’s not there, and Vic leaves frustrated and angry with himself.

When he gets back to Titans’ Tower, it marks the first time this arc that most of the Titans (except Wonder Girl and Raven) are in the same room. Gar introduces Terra as the newest member, Robin OKs it perfunctorily, and they strategize about protecting Raven.

Meanwhile, Donna’s on a fancy dinner date with Terry, and Raven’s at St. Peter’s Cathedral looking for guidance. The Brotherhood finds her there, and she’s ready to throw down, but Phobia says they shouldn’t fight in church. Raven teleports out, the Brotherhood follows, and the priest is left contemplating the bizarre display. A good little scene all around.

It’s New Year’s in NYC, and Dick Clark’s (really!) counting down, when Raven’s soul-self flies out of the clock. The Brotherhood teleports into Times Square as well, with the Titans close behind. Plasmus shatters Raven’s soul-self, knocking her out with big psychic feedback. Kid Flash tries to speed her away, but they run into one of Warp’s portals. Fran traps Phobia in some water pipes, but Phobia turns the crowd against the Titans. Warp reappears, dumping off a dazed Kid Flash, whose thoughts reveal that he still loves Raven. While the Brotherhood escapes, Terry proposes to Donna.

As issue #31 (May 1983) opens, the team picks itself up and heads back to Titans’ Tower, with Robin and Kid Flash both thinking about quitting. Somewhat surprising considering his attitude in previous issues, Dick doesn’t want the team to break up, recognizes he’s got “too much on [his] mind,” and thinks maybe Donna should take over. In fact, Donna’s waiting for them, in costume, eager to spill her big news. Dick and Roy are supportive, but Wally wants to get back to business. A T-Jet full of grim Titans speeds for Zandia….

… where the Brotherhood tries, one by one, to pry Brother Blood’s secrets from her. They think he left something behind (eww) when he stepped through her soul-self in issue #22. Ultimately, Phobia exploits Raven’s fear of not being able to handle everyone else’s emotions and needs. (Phobia can’t play the Trigon card again, because she can only exploit each fear once.) This sends Raven on a weird trip through an orange-tinted hell which, even rendered on decades-old newsprint in slightly faded colors, is still pretty spooky.
First, millions of little souls swarm all over her, stripping her bare and leaving her isolated atop a rocky outcropping, with only their baleful, glowing eyes keeping her company.

 

When this gets unbearable, she tumbles away, only to see that Trigon and the Brotherhood have brutally murdered the Titans. Now Wally, the only one left alive, refuses to let her heal him, saying he’d rather die first. And die he does, crumbling into dust not unlike Perez would depict his uncle’s fate. The Brotherhood sees none of this, only the unconscious Raven. Maybe she don’t know nothin’? No, the Brain says, she knows, but shedoesn’t know she knows. (An “unknown known,” in Rumsfeld-speak.)

On the T-Jet,Gar and Vic talk about Sarah’s fiancé, and Dick and Kory do whatever making-up they need to. In Zandia, the Brain plays good cop, and Raven starts remembering a cave. After Mother Mayhem tells the local cops to let the Titans off the T-Jet, both groups find their way to Blood’s cave. They fight. Interesting note: during the battle, Terra muses, “How long can [the Titans] keep treating me like I’m a fifth wheel?” Jeez, Terra, it’s been what — two days?

Raven watches the combat passively, until “one … by one … by one … the Titans fall … DEFEATED!” This is too much — Raven has seen her nightmare come true, and all bets are off. Her soul-self now has a glowing red four-eyed Trigon face, and demonic Kirby Krackles.

The Brotherhood wets itself. Raven’s soul-self descends over them. Fortunately for them, Donna shows up to snap Raven out of her trance. She says “you’ll murder all your friends,” which is probably true, even though at that moment it’s only the Brotherhood in trouble.

Raven screams, her soul-self withdraws, and Wally asks “she tried to kill us … didn’t she?”

“No,” Donna replies, “… she tried to kill herself!

Whoa.

* * *

For anyone familiar with the history of the book, these four issues set up some fairly important arcs. Raven’s subplot is particularly compelling, because she has always been a pawn of one faction or another, from Trigon’s daughter to Azarath’s champion, and now as some kind of secret weapon. The fact that the Brotherhood wants her in its war on Blood must be doubly damning, suggesting that she can only be used for evil. Raven herself just wants to be left alone so she can solidify control over her emotions. The triumph over her soul-self in issue #8 might well have been her happiest point in the series, and that was almost two years ago.

Interrupting her constantly, at least in these issues, is Wally West, himself trying to figure out what to do with his life. I know later Flash writers filled in a lot of Wally’s rather bland backstory, giving his parents names and personalities and whatnot, and establishing him as the Flash’s biggest fan. Although that doesn’t jibe with his treatment here, it can still be reconciled by shifting young-adult emotions. That may only go so far, though, considering that Wally decided to retire Kid Flash after his high-school graduation and had to be “coerced” by Raven’s emotional nudging to join the new Teen Titans. Now that he’s free of her influence, he apparently does love her, but his declarations come off lukewarm. His connection with Frances Kane is far more tangible. It’s almost as if Wally’s going through the motions with Raven and his Titans membership to convince himself and the readers that he gave them one last, valid shot. I will say that these issues also lay the groundwork for Fran to join the Titans, with Wally as her gateway/guide, so Wally’s leaving isn’t entirely predetermined.

As for the actual new Titan, Terra’s lightning-quick reversal from #29’s “I’m not joining” to #30’s “get me in” might also be chalked up (charitably, that is) to hormones, if it weren’t for Gar — Gar, remember, not Dick the detective — pointing out holes in her story, and Cyborg and Raven’s separate concerns. Next to the trouble with Raven, though, questions about Terra look less pressing. Besides, she seems charming enough, what with her wholesome looks and her love-hate relationship with Changeling.

On a more meta note, you’ll notice that this is the first time I’ve actually posted scans of the artwork with one of these recaps. Perez and Tanghal didn’t have entirely complementary styles at first, but one or the other, or both, were drawing a lot tighter, and it really shows in these pages. Dick and Wally look appropriately muscular, but wiry, especially in street clothes. Kory is being drawn a lot taller than everyone else, but she, Donna, and Raven all have the bodies of late-teen/young-adult women. Terra, now the youngest cast member, gets the most typically-teenage body, similar to Lizzie, the runaway from last time. It’s now easier to believe these characters are the ages they’re supposed to be, thanks to the evolving art.

Again, overall these four issues present some pretty meaty melodrama, but I also get the feeling that Marv and George realized just how popular the book had become, and were emboldened by said popularity to take some real chances and pull out some stops. For the most part, these worked, but occasionally a hint of overconfidence would shine through.

Next: Two single-issue sagas, the return of Deathstroke, and New York’s newest masked man!

May 28, 2006

This Is Your Brain On New Teen Titans #s 26-27

Filed under: big titans project, new teen titans, recaps — Tom Bondurant @ 9:41 pm
Something about these two issues just discourages me from reading them. Not that they’re bad; probably that I’ve read them so much and I just want to get on with the rest of NTT Year 3, which is more soap-operatic. However, this time I think I may have figured out where they fit into the bigger picture.

(You have probably already done so, but humor me.)

Since these were the issues that put the Titans on Nancy Reagan’s just-say-no radar, it’s easy to look at them as devoted completely to gritty, street-level explorations of serious teen problems. However, they’re also filled with standard superhero subplot maintenance. In particular, New Teen Titans #26 (December 1982) is a very busy issue.

Its first few pages get the Titans back to Earth and, in so doing, establish that Starfire and Robin are free to see each other. (Why this was an issue is never spelled out, except for Dick’s statement that he had just put the nail in the coffin of his last relationship, and a bit in the lettercolumn about Batman writer Gerry Conway giving Dick/Kory his blessing. Not to get all inside-baseball, but I thought it was curious.)

There’s also a short sequence introducing Terra, an earth-controlling terrorist who tries to destroy the Statue of Liberty before Changeling runs her off. She’s not an insignificant threat, either. Although she doesn’t do any damage to the statue, her geological feats include creating and animating a rock monster (or, as Fred Schneider might say, a “ro-oooo-ck monn-sterrr!”) and escaping using her own mini-volcano.

As for the runaways themselves, I will not make fun of their plights, and they are treated very earnestly and respectfully. Unfortunately, Mike Taylor, the one who looks most stuck in the late ’70s, is the first to die. He leaves his mother because she beats him; Lizzie Angelo is kicked out by her dad because she’s pregnant; and Luis Gomez just wants to make a big score — his parents plead for him to stay. Eventually (we are told that “several weeks” pass between pages), Mike tries to hold up Adrian Chase and his wife. Dick and Kory witness this while in line for a Broadway show, but they hold off on helping because of secret identity concerns. Chase stops Mike, but during the struggle Mike gets away and runs out into the street, where he’s hit by a car and killed immediately.

While out with classmates, Raven senses Lizzie’s pain, and she and Cyborg take Lizzie to a shelter. Chase is there as well, wanting the Titans to help him bust a drug ring which uses teenagers. In a later scene where Chase briefs the team, Robin gets a strong Batman vibe from an intense Chase.

Luis surfaces as a waiter for Chase’s target, mobster Anthony Scarapelli. However, he fingers another teenager, Paul Taylor, who’s been skulking around the fringes of the story, and Paul gets a beating from Scarapelli’s men. He manages to get to Cyborg’s apartment, where the Titans find him.

If that sounds like a lot of characters and plot, it is, but everything’s balanced out nicely and nothing really feels forced or shortchanged, even though Mike and Paul aren’t named until issue #27 (January 1983). In this issue, things get a little clearer after Raven heals Paul, who reveals (shock!) he’s Mike’s brother. Back at the runaway shelter, the Titans run into Roy Harper, who’s working as a civilian liaison between law enforcement agencies. Remind me again — how old is Roy, and how long has it been since Black Canary got him off heroin? Is this a civil-service job? (Actually, since Roy was involved with Great Frog, a band of Driveshaft-level popularity, maybe it’s an Elvis-meets-Nixon circumstance.) Of course, Roy and the Titans are old friends, and Roy talks back to Adrian Chase, who has popped up again.

Blah blah blah, Paul’s not spilling what he knows because he wants in on the bust, Raven pulls it out of his mind, the Titans get ready to rumble, Roy puts his Speedy costume on again, and the big drug distribution network, she is smashed.

Now, that’s a pretty flip way to summarize the rest of the issue, when it really deserves a little more. Sprinkled throughout were one-page, nine-panel “interludes” showing snapshots of the various runaways’ recruitment. The issue opens with Luis recruiting one Sylvester Johnson, a fairly innocent-looking kid who by the second interlude has become Luis’ right-hand man. When Sylvester ends up killed in a crossfire during the Titans’ bust, it’s a slow-motion moment that crystallizes the scene. Considering that Sylvester has, to this point, been a fairly minor figure, Wolfman and Perez still get some pathos out of his death.

And that, I think, is the point of the arc in a nutshell. Essentially, the runaway teens introduced in these two issues are meant to come into the Titans’ lives without a lot of buildup, but they still get their share of dignity. In a way, the kids even feel more “real” for their brief appearances — if they’d turned into recurring characters, it might have cheapened them somewhat.

In fact, though, Lizzie is perhaps an unintentional foreshadowing of Tara Markov, who will get a much bigger role in the book starting with #28. Lizzie and Tara both have the same shade of four-color-blonde hair, big eyes, and freckles, although Lizzie is a little younger. I never found the Titans quite believable as teenagers, and having Perez draw Lizzie realistically for her age emphasized that.

Still, this story was meant to show the Titans as teens, dealing with the problems of kids just a few years younger, and for that it does a decent job. The exposition about runaway shelters doesn’t sound sufficiently “More You Know”-ish to be distracting, either. I didn’t read these issues when they first came out (I borrowed a friend’s a couple of years later), but only now do I realize I would have been in the target age for this story. That’s a little sobering.

Next issue: Terra’s back, Speedy’s still around, and the Brotherhood of Evil returns!

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