OVERWORD 2 · Titans Fix Part Two

Let me try to retrace the steps:

I wanted colorful superhero comics. 70s, 80s Bronze Age stuff — clean art, lots of characters.

I also wanted to continue feeding my hunger for back issues, a sub-hobby that I sometimes try to suppress due to both space restrictions and oversaturation. My sights naturally fell on the Teen Titans corner of the DC Universe. I resisted the urge to binge, desperately collecting in mass quantities as I am wont to do, but I gave in.

There I was: #TitansFix

The New Teen Titans/Tales of the Teen Titans (59 issues & 3 annuals, the classic run), The NEW Titans (92 issues & 7 annuals, the Baxter-era), and Teen Titans Spotlight (21 issues) plus the 4 issue mini-series, the X-Men crossover, the 3 drug-free school giveaways, a couple of Secret Origins issues, and a few cameo appearances. Throw in some Deathstroke the Termintaor and Team Titans with specific Amazing Heroes mags and you get over 200 comic books.

Marv Wolfman wrote 99.9% of those stories. George Pérez was the first and most associated artist of these comics. Both men took the 60s Teen Titans concept and updated it, creating the roster we all know and love. The fan-favorite title became DC’s best selling book, locking its place on the company’s top shelf. I thought TT was a safe bet to take a deep dive in because I 1) had more than a passing familiarity with the characters and 2) The creative team was small and focused. The chances of a strong vision were high. I was interested to see how it performed throughout an entire decade.

Two hundred comics, though — GULP. What if this stunk? I mean, I read about less of a third of this lot over 20 years ago. But still, why couldn’t I just act casually, taking in the stories in smaller chunks? I’ll tell you why. Because that’s not me.

Enough stalling or looking back. Let’s begin.

First issue (released August 1980) was as solid as I remembered. Everyone’s introduced cleanly, compellingly. Solid inks by Romeo Tanghal, really nice colors by Adrienne Roy; she colored all of these comics and I have to tell you, it really completes the package. Color was an important component of that specific thing I was looking for.

Issue number two. Deathstroke’s first appearance. Having never read it, I was pretty goddamn giddy.

It was awesome. Jam-packed, full of action and great art. Pérez was still drawing baby heads on everyone, but he’s clearly kicking ass. The passion is there and he’s putting in the work. School of more-is-more. I had forgotten the details of one of the new members’ weird origin, Starfire. From issue three:

By issue four, the Titans fight the Justice League of America, which pushes all of my right buttons. This is what I wanted: buff bods in clean costumes doing crazy shit on newsprint paper.

By issue 5, legendary Superman penciller Curt Swan dropped by to fill in for Pérez. It’s not as jarring as I remembered it being. Swan pulled off this monster-filled feature, but there were plenty of smaller character moments that allowed him to shine. This page in particular steals the show, the last panel perhaps being Wolfman’s best writing to date.

Moving along. It’s neat to see this hungry, scrappy little title — this project Pérez himself had reservations about working on — and seeing it rise steadily. Those early lettercols are funny in their nervous energy. Wolfman & Co. gave it their all at first, as if the ship was going to sink anyway but they were gonna go down punching. Something clicked, the enthusiasm came through, and by issue 7, the New Teen Titans was a bona fide hit.

Issue 8 featured the more personal “A Day in the Lives…” story, Puppet-Master is brought back from Silver Age oblivion for the 9th issue, and then Deathstroke returns to own the Titans in #10. I felt good, I felt confident in my decision to pursue this interest. I was even stoked for next issue’s “When Titans Clash” and its follow-up chapter, both of which I never owned or read.

I’ve read enough X-Men comics to be almost desensitized to non-consensual kisses in comics, but Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy lets her feelings known from the top. And yet, that doesn’t stop the Olympian god Hyperion from proceeding to brainwash her.

The scene lingers a little too long. Whatever, let’s get this battle over with and move one. Oh, wait, Hyperion has taken Donna away.

That’s… cool. He’ll probably just spew some exposition until they’re interrupted by a rescue team or a natural disaster or something, anything that won’t keep them in seclusion long enough for him to do something questionable.

We got page after page of exposition, sure, but where’s that rescue squad, Marv? Any minute now, guys. Hey, look, there they are —


Uh… “days” –?!

One can just pretend that absolutely nothing happened between a manipulative god and a teenage girl (I just described Teen Titan Raven’s conception, by the way) in seclusion and in the span of days, but that’s asking a lot. That scenario is so wrong on so many levels. Arguing that Donna Troy was a computer simulation or a magically made clay figure who is unfortunately named “Troia” later on or a Wonder Woman mirror-image duplicate doesn’t make it less creepy. Never mind that she’s a Teen Titan. How old’s her adult boyfriend, Terry Long, anyway?

From issue 12:

What is it with male scribes of this era writing stories around quasi-helpless, mind-controlled women? All these examples came to me at once: Mark Gruenwald’s Lady Lark from the Squadron SupremeJohn Byrne’s performative Big BardaPaul Levitz’s Dream Girl/Atmos thingChris Claremont’s Dark Phoenix (whose Saga is just one big psychological takeover, but specifically the Mastermind scenes). How about Avengers #200 for being the sleaziestRoger Stern used Starfox for a stretch, whose power of persuasion might or might not have affected the already flirty She-Hulk (with a suspicious Wasp feeling uneasy about the entire thing at least). Those are just off the top of my head. Same sort of shit happened between Jessica Jones and the Purple Man as scripted by Brian Michael Bendis. In Valiant’s Harbinger (2012), writer Joshua Dysart did something similarly transgressive between two major characters and forty issues later, it remained unaddressed. (Still is, I believe.) I’m not being sensitive to this, but for argument’s sake, let’s just say that when all this hit me, it was a bad time to chalk these up as mere plot devices.

And goddamn, Starfire never catches a break, huh?

I felt gross reading that Olympians/Teen Titans story. I peeked ahead to later issues to see if any readers objected, if they even brought up this misbehavior. Nothing — all the letterhacks gushed over how emotionally powerful the two-part story was. (At least one was brought to tears.) Maybe the appalled letters weren’t printed. Maybe the times were that different. I know modern readers feel similarly skeezed out. Mind control is a benign comic book trope, but when it’s used to a sexual degree, it quickly gets creepy.

Is it fair to judge an old story by modern standards? Hey, I read these comics keeping the context in mind, but that extended story beat in Hyperion’s cave is cruel. I argue that it’s entirely unnecessary. It’s a cheap way at arriving at “character development” that never gets addressed in any developmental way. I don’t doubt or question that these characters mean a lot to Wolfman and Pérez, but that somehow makes it worse. All of these big company superheroes get fucked with every time a creative team goes through them, they’re built to be resistant to multigenerational disrespect and are measured by just how well they survive the experience. I can’t imagine Wolfman and Pérez, the prime custodians of the Titans, casting their characters into such light.

The reality is that my enthusiasm crashed and burned. I had zero interest in continuing. I even thought of getting rid of the comics. But I held on to them, not wanting to act brashly. I went through all the trouble of hunting them down, I might as well look through them, at least. Some of the non-Pérez stuff looked kinda dull, so no big loss there, but I was looking forward to “The Judas Contract”, the return of demon-daddy villain Trigon, the José Luis García-López issues, the Eduardo Barreto issues (I love Barreto). Aw, crap, “The Judas Contract” reminded me of that shady relationship between Deathstroke and that underage psychopath.

Only one thing could save this, I thought. TITANS HUNT. I didn’t come this far just to let this trip me up. I had to at least find out for myself what all the hubbub was about.

So I skipped ahead. It’s not officially titled (and has never been collected), but the “Titans Hunt” storyline begins with The New Titans #71 (released September 1990) — though I recommend the previous issue’s spotlight on Deathstroke, which leads into his solo series. This 71st issue also serves as a good introduction to the entire team with the perfect blend of set-up and exposition. The art team by then was Tom Grummett, who had been pencilling the title for about a year before this storyline and had a handful of credits before then. Al Vey was his inker and Adrienne Roy remained as exemplary colorist.

It didn’t take long to convince me: these are great comics.

The entire thing had forward momentum, natural cliffhangers, an overall point, it had agency, it had zero fat, zero nonsense.

Apparently, this run was inspired by newly appointed editor Jonathan Peterson, working closely with a burnt-out Marv Wolfman who was admittedly going through writer’s block up to that point. (Thankfully, he stopped being a writer/editor several years prior.) The book needed more of a spark than a complete overhaul. Like a decade earlier, it’s super interesting to see the creative team try their best to turn the ship around. Peterson constantly promising a letters page and routinely not delivering the letters page is pretty hilarious. It just adds to the frenzied clip of getting these comics out the door. They were swept in the moment — a readers poll, a contest, spin-offs, you can see the book breathe life back into itself. It adds to the reading experience. It makes you root for everyone involved.

I was warned several times that things took a sharp turn for the Hunt, not for the better. Not quite a spoiler, but I had that in the back of my mind reading these comics. I figured it would be so obvious that I’d definitely know it when it hit me in the face. Well, let’s see… issue 85 begins with somewhat of a natural stopping point but then goes into several unresolved subplots. That’s fine, it’s to be expected in serialized mainstream comics. One rarely gets a clean break — you always gotta string the readers along, giving them something to come back for. This issue also has some fill-in artists, an appearance by the previously inducted Team Titans, and the introduction of a baby creature.

That couldn’t be the sharp turn, could it? Deathstroke and Titans-leader Nightwing are pummeling one another on the cover of 86, certainly things will go back to normal.

Issue 86: fill-in artists again, okay. And Team Titans again… er, fine. And a lot more baby hijinks. Fuck, this is rough. I was suspicious of that year’s (Armageddon 2001 crossover! That’s a big plus!) annual drawn by comics’ own ipecac, Tom Grindberg; not the best way to introduce a new team to an already packed book. So let’s say that issue 84 is THE END. Looking at its last page now — yeah, that’s a good ending.

There you have it. The Titans Hunt. Issues 71-84. Well, you can skip 80 (Team Titans) and maybe 81 (War of the Gods crossover), but hey, that still leaves you with a year’s worth of good comics.

I will eventually read the “Total Chaos” storyline/crossover. Team Titans, too, which has some really gorgeous  art by Kevin Maguire, though the Lord Chaos/pregnant Donna Troy plot whiffs of Avengers #200. I really don’t want to read any of those comics at the moment. I’ll temper my impulse to throw them away for now. I’m no longer fixated on the Teen Titans franchise, but fuck me for keeping these comics around at all despite them being… awkward. What else am I willing to overlook, though? This is an uncomfortable question I’ve cornered myself into asking. If those early issues bother me so much, do I ignore my concerns because my collection won’t be complete or something? Are a few pretty pictures worth holding on to something that offends me? The collector junkie in me is screaming to look the other way, but it’s a faint plea. I don’t think it’s going to win this one.

Titans. You had me, you lost me, you had me again, and you won’t get rid of me until it’s convenient for me to break up with you.

One rarely gets a clean break.

What did we learn here today? I don’t know about you but on a positive level, I learned that my tolerance has been tested, paving the way for a deeper appreciation of other titles I once dismissed. As a result, I have unlocked a way of reading comics that is new to me. It’s a way I’ve never heard described before, actually! I can’t wait to get into it next time, when I discuss the unlikely instrument of my understanding.

On the next OVERWORD: All-Star Squadron by Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway.

Endcap images by George Pérez.