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Has The Rebirthed Teen Titans Found An All-Star Groove?

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
Has The Rebirthed Teen Titans Found An All-Star Groove?

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for “Teen Titans: Rebirth” #1 and “Teen Titans” #1, both on sale now.

Like any relaunch worth its #1 issues, DC Comics’ Rebirth initiative is designed to pull in new readers while enticing back lapsed ones. In that respect I’m exactly who the Rebirthed “Teen Titans” is supposed to attract. I started reading “Teen Titans” during its mid-1970s revival and stayed with the series for the next thirty years. Several years ago, though, I dropped “Teen Titans” in the middle of volume 3 and haven’t really looked back.

With that in mind — and with the further caveat that this isn’t really a review — did I like the “Rebirth” issue and the proper Issue #1? Let’s say for now that I didn’t dislike them. (I still want you to read this article, after all!)

RELATED: Teen Titans: Rebirth Gathers the New Team – But Why?

Here’s the thing: I’m one of those people who may have moved past “Teen Titans.” I hate to say it, but for a long time they haven’t felt like “my” Titans. It’s a very entitled attitude which I don’t like admitting, and yet I’ve spent so many years reading various “Titans” series the group is practically part of my comics DNA. Therefore, today I’m tracing the team’s development to see what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how Rebirth fits in.

ALL-STAR TEAMWORK

Proto-Teen TItans on the cover of "Brave and the Bold" #54, by Bruno Premiani

Detail from the cover of 1964’s “The Brave and the Bold” #54, teaming Kid Flash, Robin and Aqualad. Art by Bruno Premiani

First let’s ask a very basic question: Why do I want to read this book? With “Teen Titans,” as with any all-star team, initially the answer has to be because it has a bunch of characters I already like. Surely that’s a big reason why people read about the Justice League, Avengers, Champions, etc. The tagline for “World’s Finest’s” joint Superman/Batman stories was very plain: “Your two favorite heroes in one adventure together!”

RELATED: Artist Jonboy Meyers Leaves DC’s Teen Titans

Indeed, “Teen Titans'” beginnings are just as simple. In the early 1960s “Justice League of America” was a monster hit, and DC saw the opportunity to create a junior JLA out of the Leaguers’ kid sidekicks. If you were a comics reader in the middle of the Silver Age, why would you have wanted to read June-July 1964’s “The Brave and the Bold” #54? Because it teamed up Kid Flash, Robin and Aqualad. Why might you have read June-July 1965’s “B&B” #60 or November-December 1965’s “Showcase” #59? Because DC had added Wonder Girl to the trio and were calling the group “Teen Titans.”

The team got its own title in 1966 and, except for a couple of periods in the 1970s, DC has been in the Titans business ever since:

  • 1966-73 and 1976-78: “Teen Titans” vol. 1;
  • 1980-96: “New Teen Titans” vols. 1-2 (including the companion book “Tales of the Teen Titans” and the retitled “New Titans”);
  • 1996-98: “Teen Titans” vol. 2;
  • 1998-2003: “Young Justice” and “Titans” vol. 1 (including the “JLA: World Without Grown-Ups” and “JLA/Titans” miniseries);
  • 2003-11: “Teen Titans” vol. 3;
  • 2008-10: “Titans” vol. 2 (not including the retitled “Titans: Villains For Hire”); and
  • 2011-16: “Teen Titans” vols. 4-5.

Last year’s “Titans Hunt” miniseries bridged the gap from “DC You” into a “Rebirth” revival of “Titans” starring Nightwing, Classic Wally West, et al. Now DC has Rebirthed “Teen Titans” (by now, Vol. 6) as well. Each of the above started out with an all-star component except for the 1996-98 “Teen Titans,” and even it nodded to Titans history. Indeed, whether it’s today’s young heroes in “Teen Titans” or the young-adult professionals of the adjectiveless “Titans,” these groups all have two basic elements: the all-star foundation, and strong interpersonal dynamics.

Of course, any all-star team will have its own set of relationships, but the Titans in particular emphasized the latter. For example, over the years the Titans titles have included more than their share of workplace romances, from Roy Harper/Donna Troy to Dick Grayson/Koriand’r and Conner Kent/Cassie Sandsmark. While other all-star teams had romantic couples — say, Green Arrow/Black Canary or Scarlet Witch/Vision — books like “JLA” and “Avengers” focused more on bromances imported from other titles such as Batman/Superman, Flash/Green Lantern and Atom/Hawkman. Conversely, the Titans books developed gradually into havens, and even “families,” for characters (pre-existing or otherwise) not appearing anywhere else. Since the all-star component has always been there and probably always will be, any “Titans” title must balance that all-star appeal with those character dynamics.

TITANS THROUGH THE YEARS

The original Teen Titans, by Nick Cardy

Detail from the cover of “Teen Titans” vol. 1 #16, by Nick Cardy

Nevertheless, eventually an all-star team will include characters created specifically for the book (again, like the Vision or “Justice League Europe’s” Crimson Fox). “Teen Titans” was no different, although it took a while for the original series to add any such characters. In the early days the four Titans (Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Wonder Girl) welcomed guest-stars like Speedy (who joined officially in issue #19), Beast Boy of the Doom Patrol, and Hawk & Dove. However, as part of the book’s shifting focus, January-February 1970’s issue #25 introduced psychic Lilith Clay and regular guy Mal Duncan.

While that didn’t diminish the team’s all-star status, it did show creators tailoring the membership to serve the book’s needs. Lilith and Mal (and Hawk and Dove, who joined in the same issue) were part of a soft relaunch where the Titans sometimes put away their costumes and powers in order to tackle more real-world problems. Again, this happened five-and-a-half years after “B&B” #54, and four years (and 25 bimonthly issues) into the regular series’ run. To put that in perspective, “Justice League of America” didn’t add its first created-for-the-series members (mascot Snapper Carr notwithstanding) until Steel II, Vibe and Gypsy joined the Detroit League in 1984. Indeed, the Detroit League was Aquaman’s answer to all-stars like Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash being too busy with their own adventures.

Regardless, “Teen Titans” had to shift focus early on because it was unlucky enough to debut right in the middle of the Marvel Age of Comics. DC’s teen team was competing with Peter Parker and Johnny Storm, not to mention the X-Men and the omnipresent Rick Jones. Those characters were stars of (or integral to) their respective books, and they also happened to be teenagers. By contrast, the Titans represented elements of the stodgier side of the Silver Age, and were led by a character who back in 1940 originated the very idea of the superhero sidekick. Compared to Spider-Man or the Human Torch that idea seemed almost antiquated, and Marvel’s treatment of star sidekick Bucky Barnes was illustrative. Just a few months before “B&B” #54 introduced the proto-Titans, March 1964’s “Avengers” #4 had killed off Bucky — and in a flashback, no less.

Eventually, individual Titans started growing up. In 1969’s “Batman” #217 Dick Grayson went off to college, and in 1973’s “Green Lantern” issues #85-86 (about six months after the final issue of “Teen Titans”) Roy Harper battled a heroin habit. The mid-1970s “Titans” revival also tried hard to find itself. It gave Mal a series of different superhero identities (and a girlfriend who became the superheroine Bumblebee). It fielded a Titans West team which included the Hawkman-inspired Golden Eagle and the pre-Barbara Gordon Bat-Girl. Its final issue revealed the Titans’ actual origin, which pitted them against their JLA mentors and established that Wonder Girl and Speedy had been involved from the very beginning. None of those were enough to stave off cancellation.

Fortunately for DC, the Titans then became a group ripe for reinvention. Under Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, “New Teen Titans” was just barely an all-star group. Robin was the only character appearing regularly anywhere else, but within four years he was the Titans-exclusive Nightwing. In the next few years Wolfman and Pérez turned Wonder Girl into Troia and, via “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” promoted Kid Flash to Flash III. (Perhaps foreshadowing the coming wave of maturations, Beast Boy had showed up in 1980’s first issue with new duds and demanding to be called “Changeling.”)

The New Teen Titans by George Perez

The New Teen Titans, by George Perez

While Pérez stayed through the series’ first four years and returned a few years later for another several issues, Wolfman wrote almost all of the series’ 16-year run. I haven’t run the numbers, but I feel pretty sure that’s the longest tenure of any “Titans” writer. Under Wolfman and Pérez’s collective guidance the Titans eventually dropped the “Teen” and solidified the book’s unofficial mission. Instead of teaming up sidekicks and their contemporaries, “New Titans” found itself combining pre-existing characters with new creations and exploring the resulting relationships. Right from the start, the book’s first roster set up Robin’s romance with Starfire, Changeling’s bromance with Cyborg and Raven’s “love spell” on Kid Flash (which was her way of getting a reluctant Wally to join).

Problem was, after six years Wolfman and Pérez (and successive artists) had wrapped up all of their outstanding subplots. Trigon was dead, Deathstroke was retired, Starfire’s sister was ruling Tamaran more-or-less peacefully, and Brother Blood had literally been put out to pasture. Accordingly, when the book hit its ten-year anniversary in 1990, Wolfman and regular artist Tom Grummett celebrated by blowing up Titans’ Tower and scattering the team to the ends of the earth. “New Titans” was never the same after that, bringing in new characters, making old friends regular members, turning old regulars evil, and generally sidelining some others. It was a whirlwind few years, so much so that in 1994 “New Titans” unveiled a whole new all-star lineup. Led by Arsenal and including Impulse, the “Matrix” Supergirl and Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, it too was short-lived, and the book finally folded in 1996.

A few months later, Dan Jurgens (with input from inker George Pérez) launched “Teen Titans” volume 2. Although Jurgens’ Teen Titans were new characters, their upper management included some familiar Titans faces; and they were led by a 16-year-old version of Ray “Atom” Palmer. It was another mix of new and old, just with the proportions flipped. Subsequent Titans series, including “Young Justice,” would go back the other way, not least because DC was accumulating a lot of pre-existing teen and twentysomething characters who were ripe for joining teams.

1999's Titans, by Mark Buckingham and Wade Von Grawbadger

The revived Titans on complementary first-issue variant covers. Art by Mark Buckingham and Wade Von Grawbadger

By the late ’90s and early ’00s this generation of super-teens was taking over old sidekick positions, and the two Titan-style teams reflected that. When the adjectiveless “Titans” and “Young Justice” shared shelf space for a few years, Nightwing, Flash, Troia and Arsenal were on the older team while successors Tim Drake, Bart Allen, Cassie Sandsmark and Cissie King-Jones staffed the younger. This continued for a good chunk of the ’00s, even though “Titans” was cancelled in 2003 and revived in 2008. (One might argue that during that period the Arsenal- and Nightwing-led “Outsiders” was a sort of “Titans” successor, but I’m not so sure.)

“Young Justice” may have been the last Teen Titans-style series to emphasize the all-star and character aspects equally. At the time, Robin, Impulse and Superboy each had their own solo titles and Wonder Girl appeared fairly frequently in “Wonder Woman.” “YJ” writer Peter David then fleshed out the team with the new Arrowette (the aforementioned Cissie, whose mom had fought Green Arrow and Speedy) and a new character, the Secret. Under David and artist Todd Nauck, “YJ” was a comedy not unlike “Justice League International,” and its relationships were played mostly for laughs.

However, when most of the characters transferred over to 2003’s “Teen Titans” volume 3, writer Geoff Johns took them in less wacky directions. Robin and Superboy became best friends, Superboy and Wonder Girl got serious about their relationship, and Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy returned to give the new generation some pointers. Although “TT” volume 3 only lasted half as long as “New Teen Titans,” Johns and his successors ended up facing some of the same concerns about keeping the title fresh. As the book progressed, the roster changed, adding Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes) and Kid Devil as well as lesser lights like Zatanna’s cousin Zatara. Some dark turns included glimpses of the dystopian “Titans Tomorrow” and assistants Wendy and Marvin being mauled by a demonic Wonderdog. Meanwhile, the “Titans” revival of 2008 only lasted a couple of years before the book changed format, becoming a villains-oriented team headed by Deathstroke and a traumatized Arsenal. (Donna Troy, Supergirl, Starfire, Cyborg and Dick Grayson’s Batman joined the JLA.) Both series ended in 2011 to make way for the New 52.

That relaunch shook up all the Titans pretty significantly. The revised 5-year timeline seemed to eliminate the original Teen Titans (including Wally West and Donna Troy), establishing instead that the current group was the first one of its kind. Furthermore, it changed the characters’ backgrounds to downplay their connections with ostensible mentors. All this produced a team of familiar names (with unfamiliar histories) who for the most part appeared only in “Teen Titans.” Superboy had his own title at the start of the New 52, and Red Robin popped up in various Bat-events, but Kid Flash and Wonder Girl had no immediate links to Flash or Wonder Woman. Thus, the New 52 relaunch seemed to assume that readers would want to read about this particular combination of characters regardless of how grounded they were in the larger DC Universe or how much they hewed to the relationships readers remembered.

TESTING THE TITANS

Having gone through all that background, I’d say the Titans hit a definite high point in 1989, during George Pérez’s second stint on “New Titans.” This is not to say the series peaked — or that it hadn’t been better — just that it was a good starting point for judging what would follow. Pérez’s first new collaboration with Marv Wolfman was the epic “Who Is Wonder Girl,” which aimed to be the last word on Donna’s origins. (It wasn’t, but it was still entertaining.) With Wolfman also writing “Batman,” the two then crafted 1989’s “Lonely Place Of Dying” crossover, which introduced Tim Drake. After that I think it’s fair to say the various Titans books experienced a lot of peaks and valleys.

A Young Justice Halloween

Detail from “Young Justice” #3’s double-page Halloween spread, featuring Superboy, Robin and Impulse. Written by Peter David, with art by Todd Nauck and Lary Stucker

Therefore, let’s ask: in the twenty-odd years between 1990’s “New Titans” shakeup and 2011’s New 52 relaunch, what worked and what didn’t? “Young Justice” was popular enough to warrant its own medium-sized event, the age-swapping “Sins of Youth” miniseries. The 1999-2003 “Titans” wasn’t a bad series (it did give the world Damien Darhk) but it seemed to be very fan-service-y; and I say that as a fan of those characters. While Geoff Johns and Mike McKone’s “Teen Titans” volume 3 was very well-received, it took a while to recover from Superboy dying in the Johns-written “Infinite Crisis.” (Furthermore, a number of minor Titans were casualties of that big event’s dogpile-style battles.) Personally, I dropped “TT” volume 3 after Sean McKeever and Eddy Barrows’ issue #62 (October 2008), when Wonderdog mauled Wendy and Marvin. By that point “Teen Titans” seemed to be trying too hard to be gritty and edgy while keeping its relationships engaging, while the “Titans” revival was still figuring out where it wanted to go. That leaves the New 52 version, which (as described above) dropped just about everything except the most basic character details, and never really distinguished itself after that.

Accordingly, let’s return to the first question: why read a Titans book? Are they a “Justice League”-esque collection of solo stars? Are we attached to these characters regardless of whether they’ve got their own series? Is there some combination of both?

Titans together, by Mike McKone and Marlo Alquiza

Titans together, from “Teen Titans” vol. 3 #23. Written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Mike McKone, inked by Marlo Alquiza

As to the all-star factor, it may be obvious, but it bears repeating: any main-line Titans book has to have some pre-existing character component or it’s really not a Titans book. The Fantastic Four and the X-Men are perfectly fine super-teams, but by definition they’re not the Avengers. Put another way, the Justice League is a very simple and extremely marketable concept: DC’s A-list characters on one super-team. “Teen Titans” started out with the same formula, just a different demographic. (In the late ’90s, DC tried to duplicate “JLA’s” all-star success for each of the other generations, with “Young Justice,” “Titans,” and for the oldsters and their successors, “JSA.”)

That formula makes it easy to sell. The New 52 even had its own group of teen-oriented titles like “Superboy,” “Static Shock” and “Blue Beetle.” If its “Teen Titans” had teamed up all of those characters (to say nothing of “Hawk and Dove” and “Supergirl,” two other charter New 52 series); or if it had given Red Robin, Wonder Girl and Kid Flash stronger connections to the Bat-books, “Wonder Woman” and “Flash,” I know I would have been more eager to read it. Wanting to avoid too much editorial red tape, and wanting to make sure each book stands on its own, are good goals generally. However, “Teen Titans” has become enough of an institution that it needs those external connections. Once those are in place, the relationships will follow.

Moreover, the Titans need an in-universe reason to come together. Maybe that’s a desire to emulate their League mentors, or a shared sense of responsibility born of out of an adolescence of crimefighting. The first “New Teen Titans” arc even put forth the notion that they were just about as good as the JLA. After all, when Raven couldn’t convince the League to help her fight Trigon, she recruited the next best thing. By contrast, the Johns/McKone series wanted the latest Robin, Superboy, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl to learn from the older and wiser Starfire, Cyborg and Beast Boy.

The all-star component gives a Titans series its familiarity, and the in-universe origin places it in the larger DC Universe context. The character dynamics then arise out of the resulting setup. Whether the reader develops any attachments is a question of execution.

REBIRTH

The New 52 Teen Titans

The New 52 Teen Titans, by Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferrieira

That brings us, at long last, to “Teen Titans: Rebirth” #1 and the actual first issue of the new series. Both are written by Ben Percy, drawn by Jonboy Meyers and colored by Jim Charalampidis. The “Rebirth” issue is a low-key introduction, content to check in with four of the book’s main characters as they meet the fifth. Issue #1 picks up from there, focusing on Robin (Damian Wayne) and explaining his motivation for bringing them all together. The roster includes Beast Boy, Starfire, Raven and the new Kid Flash, with Damian in charge (although I get the feeling that’s subject to change). It’s all-star all the way, with Robin and Starfire having just wrapped their own “DC You” series, Kid Flash appearing pretty regularly in “Flash,” and Robin set to co-star in the upcoming “Super-Sons.” In fact, unless I missed something, Damian hasn’t been in any of the main Bat-books since “Rebirth” started. The “haven” aspect is present too: Raven’s currently got her own miniseries, but otherwise it doesn’t look like Beast Boy and Starfire will be showing up anywhere else.

Taken together, the hook of “Teen Titans” seems pretty clearly to be “how will this group react to Damian’s leadership?” In the New 52 timeline, Beast Boy and Raven are experienced Titans and Starfire has been working with Red Hood and Arsenal in addition to a solo career. Only the new Kid Flash is learning on the job. Since Robin himself is talented but relatively inexperienced, this should produce a good bit of entertaining friction. Indeed, issue #1 finds the four other Titans reacting to Robin’s having kidnapped and imprisoned them; and Robin reframing their jailbreak as proof that they’re stronger together.

Because much of the two issues are basically solo vignettes, it’s hard to tell specifically how the team dynamic will play out (other than Damian getting on everyone’s nerves). Beast Boy is an overcompensating extrovert, Starfire is spirited and confident, Raven seeks to control her dark side and Kid Flash just wants to do good as he tries to master his powers. For his part, Damian’s 13th birthday inspires him to do something meaningful with his life — and, by coincidence, he gets a threatening letter from his grandfather. In combination these aren’t bad, necessarily; but there’s not much sense of who’s going to be whose best buddy. (Damian does admit that he has no friends, and everyone compares Damian to the “late” Tim Drake.) It does help that each character seems pretty close to how a casual reader might expect them to behave; and it’s nice that nobody is pulled from limbo to be here. Moreover, Beast Boy, Raven and Starfire are very familiar to Cartoon Network viewers; and Kid Flash is now a TV star. The first arc will pit this team against Rā’s al-Ghūl, himself a known quantity (including to film and TV viewers alike) who’s trying to kill each new Titan, including Robin, for some reason. In short, as with a lot of “Rebirth” makeovers, there’s nothing to really throw off casual readers.

Therefore, although the story has yet to begin in earnest, it looks like the Rebirthed Teen Titans will lean more towards an all-star model than a relationship-driven one. Indeed, Damian probably cares more about power sets than interpersonal dynamics. While anything’s possible, this particular roster doesn’t suggest the kinds of soap opera which came to characterize “New Titans” or the Tim/Conner/Cassie group. It makes me think the Rebirthed “Teen Titans” may be one of the more accessible Titans versions in recent memory, and that’s a good sign.

Let’s be clear: I wouldn’t have minded a Rebirthed “Teen Titans” which took a cue from its Classic Wally-led counterpart and brought back some pre-New 52 elements in hopes of rekindling the old magic. The apparent lack of interpersonal drama isn’t what’s encouraging about the newest “Teen Titans.” Rather, it’s the possibility that “Teen Titans” won’t be just for its longtime fans — or, to be more accurate, the longtime fans DC imagines it has. I realize that’s an extremely ironic statement, given how much I’ve already put into this post; but it’s all about accessibility. There are plenty of points along the Titans timeline where one shouldn’t jump in unprepared. That’s not the case here.

Why, then, do I want to read this book? It’s a group of familiar characters brought together by a very strong personality who often irritates colleagues in entertaining ways. Can it stand alongside other classic Teen Titans teams? I like its chances, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Starfire (who appears to be the oldest, and the one with the most expansive vision) ends up taking charge. It’s not a total throwback to the sidekick-driven days — for starters, I’d include the new Superboy — but there’s a lot of potential. I want to see what sorts of relationships develop among this group; and I’m eager for issue #2.

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