By Scott Tipton
Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest.
In the story, written by Bob Haney with art by the often overlooked draftsman Bruno Premiani, the three teen heroes converge on the small town of Hatton Corners after hearing the news of the worsening squabble between the community’s adults and teenagers, centering around the necessity for a “teen clubhouse” for the local kids to hang out in.
When the evil Mr. Stikk shows up to threaten the town with his feathery cape and magic stick, Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad team up to take him down, and along the way show the town’s adults what teenagers are capable of. Awww. How nice. Not that “Mr. Twister” was all that difficult to contend with, mind you. I think the “Young Allies” could have handled him, and most of them were dead by 1964…
The problem was, there really wasn’t a Wonder Girl to join up…
Now, whether it was the editor or the writer has never been revealed, but someone involved with the Teen Titans clearly took a cursory glance at a WONDER WOMAN comic and said, “Hey, great, there’s a Wonder Girl now! Throw her in the team!” never realizing that they were actually throwing a teenaged Princess Diana into a modern setting, which made absolutely no sense. Eventually, the error was realized, and a character and origin was hastily assembled for Wonder Girl: Donna Troy, an orphan rescued by Princess Diana and raised as an Amazon on Paradise Island as Diana’s sister. Anyway, the second appearance of the Teen Titans proved as popular as the first, and after one more test run in SHOWCASE # 59, the team graduated to its own comic, TEEN TITANS, in January 1966.
Bob Haney’s scripts were hardly realistic, with his attempts at teen slang sounding pretty much like how a man in his 40s thought teenagers spoke (“Fab! Gear! Marv!”), but a lot of fun nonetheless. The Titans would face off against such foes as the Demon Dragster, the Mad Mod and Captain Rumble, all the while referring to each other by some of the most cringeworthy nicknames in comics (“Go get ‘em Fleet-Feet!” “You said it, Gill-Head!” Yeesh.) Take a look at this moment from TEEN TITANS #15, in which the Titans head down to “Hippieville, U.S.A”:
After a massive JLA-induced guilt trip, the team temporarily abandoned their costumed identities and enrolled in a touchy-feely “explore your potential” teen program, but thankfully, they got over the guilt pretty fast and soon got back to what they did best: fighting really goofy villains.
By the time the series ended in 1976, serious losers like the Bumblebee and the Joker’s Daughter (who was really – irony of ironies – Two-Face’s daughter) had somehow finagled memberships, and the Titans were reduced to defending their nightclub from roller-disco supervillains the Rocket-Rollers. Clearly, it was time to put this dog to rest.
With the exception of the occasional guest-shot, the Titans lay dormant until 1980, when newly arrived writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez pitched DC on a new Titans series, with elements of the old, but plenty of vital new material as well. The core membership of Robin, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl would remain, with Speedy and Aqualad taking part-time status. New members were introduced, like Starfire, a gorgeous alien powerhouse; Cyborg, a tortured former athlete now more machine than man; and Raven, a sorceress and empath of troubling parentage. Finally, for a healthy dose of comic-relief, former DOOM PATROL hanger-on Beast Boy was reintroduced as the Changeling. The most important change in the new Titans series, however, was in tone, which was made immediately apparent when the first issue of THE NEW TEEN TITANS hit the stands in November 1980.
No longer were the Titans a second-rate team of sidekicks fighting wacky villains and trying to sound “hep.” (And other than the cover, very infrequently did you see the team referred to as the “Teen” Titans.) Almost immediately, Wolfman and Perez upped the ante by pitting the team against Raven’s demonic father Trigon the Terrible, an interdimensional conqueror with designs on the Earth.
Later threats included Deathstroke the Terminator, the world’s greatest assassin, and Brother Blood, a mystical cult leader with thousands of followers, and eventually the resources of an entire nation at his disposal.
In a touching moment from NEW TEEN TITANS #39, Terra is finally trusted with the secret identities of the Titans, just as Kid Flash elects to leave the team and Robin decides to abandon his costumed identity. And it’s at that moment that we learn that Terra is a traitor and a sociopath, sent to infiltrate the Titans by her lover, Deathstroke, who’s still looking to complete his contract to assassinate the Titans. It’s an unsettling moment.
Wolfman and Perez had done a great job of establishing Terra as the Titans’ new “kid sister,” and seeing her tarted up and all over the much older Deathstroke, while still looking very much a child, left the reader both repulsed and confused. (And in some cases, very angry. Wolfman reported at the time actually getting death threats over Terra’s betrayal and eventual fate.)
Aside from bigger threats and an emphasis on drama, the hallmark of the Wolfman/Perez run was characterization and growth. No longer saddled with the “Teen” limitation, the characters were not only allowed to demonstrate real personalities, but more important, they were finally allowed to grow up. Dick Grayson, now a man in his early twenties, gives up the “Robin” costume and identity he’d worn since he was 10 years old and becomes Nightwing – a man shaped by his past, but no longer trapped in it.
Grayson also enters into a serious relationship for the first time, and his romance with the alien Starfire is handled with dignity and taste.
There’s a lot more here to like. Cyborg and Changeling’s love-hate friendship (intentionally mirroring the Thing/Torch dynamic from FANTASTIC FOUR), Kid Flash’s affection for Raven, followed by his sense of betrayal when he discovers his emotions had been manipulated, the exploration of Wonder Girl’s past in “Who Is Donna Troy?”, and lots more. I would rank Wolfman/Perez as one of the great writer/artist teams in comics. They both have done great work individually, but put them together, and it’s magic. To check it out for yourself, there is a DC Archives edition of THE NEW TEEN TITANS’ first eight issues, and there are trade paperbacks available of “The Judas Contract” and “The Terror of Trigon.”
Like all good things, THE NEW TEEN TITANS (later shortened to THE NEW TITANS) eventually came to an end. While Perez remained on the book for almost five years, Wolfman stayed throughout the run of the series, over 16 years, and when he decided he had no more stories to tell, he and DC Comics agreed to cancel the series. Just as well, really. The latter years of the series had been increasingly dark and joyless, with little of the heart that made the book so good in its heyday. In its place came the 1996 series TEEN TITANS, from writer/artist Dan Jurgens, about a new batch of super-powered teenagers that had nothing to do with the original series save the name and inks by George Perez. The lackluster series didn’t catch on with readers and was cancelled after 24 issues.
The series featured the newest generation of teen sidekicks/adventurers, focusing on Tim Drake, the newest Robin, the teenaged clone Superboy (created when Superman was briefly deceased), and Impulse, the time-displaced grandson of the Silver Age Flash. Joining the team later were a new Wonder Girl taken from John Byrne’s then-recent WONDER WOMAN stint, Arrowette, the daughter of an obscure Silver Age female archer hero, and the Secret, a ghostly young girl whose past is a mystery to both her teammates and herself.
David has a better handle on writing teen characters than most writers, and the tone of the book would often shift wildly from madcap romp to deadly serious. The scripts mixed a healthy dose of comedy with lots of heart, and just enough hardcore DC continuity to keep the longtime fans amused, while still remaining accessible to new or younger readers. Nauck’s art was a little cartoony, but a good fit for the primarily lighthearted tone. David also did an excellent job with the characterization, taking the widely reviled new Wonder Girl and making her into a lively, appealing character that suddenly other DC writers were lining up to use.
The series really conveyed the sense of camaraderie and friendship among the YJ members, that they were hanging out together not to “fight evil” or any nonsense like that, but because they all desperately needed companionship from people who understood just how weird their lives were. Which is really why any group of teenagers hangs out together, isn’t it? One of the most consistently satisfying books DC published in the last few years, it was all the more infuriating when the book was cancelled a few months ago, despite steady sales and a dedicated creative team, so that a new TEEN TITANS book could be relaunched with a membership matching the upcoming Cartoon Network animated series. The only upside is that the terrible TITANS series went away as well.
Don’t get me wrong – I have no doubt that this death will, like many others in the DC Universe, eventually be overturned on appeal (I think the mortuaries in Metropolis offer frequent-customer discounts), but the big dramatic event for launching two new series is Donna getting killed by a Superman robot? Please. I’d like to think the original Wonder Girl deserves a bit more drama than that. That’s only a couple steps removed from getting killed by Bat-Mite.
The only real merchandising to speak of for the Titans came in 1976, with a “TEEN TITANS” extension to Mego’s “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes” action-figure line. Scaled down an inch in height so as to look younger than the earlier Megos (resulting in a freakishly tall Robin by comparison), the Wonder Girl, Aqualad, Speedy and Kid Flash Mego figures are highly sought after by collectors, and are considered some of the best figures in the entire line, particularly Speedy and Kid Flash.
As for the future, as mentioned above, the new Cartoon Network TEEN TITANS series premieres this Saturday at 9 p.m. The series looks to be roughly based on the Wolfman/Perez-era Titans, featuring Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy, with the characters all made considerably younger, and utilizing an artistic style much more influenced by anime than any of the other Warner Animation Batman/Superman programs of the last decade. There have been some grumblings about the new look, but considering the track records of those involved, I’m certainly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. As long as the Titans aren’t fighting a Superman robot...
Sadly, Scott Tipton has never been to Hippieville, U.S.A., although he did once make a wrong turn and wind up in Beatnik Heights. If you have a question about comics, or just want to complain about the omission of Gnaark the Cave Boy in the above column, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.