Adolescence can be scary, but it’s even scarier when it comes with super powers in a world without superheroes. In the first volume of “Teen Titans Earth One,” Jeff Lemire, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson and Cam Smith bring you the Titans as you’ve never seen them before, abandoning continuity for a fresh take on this handful of teen heroes. However, despite a strong opening and solid core mystery, the graphic novel reads like an extended first issue with flat, one-dimensional characters and hit-or-miss artwork.
The opening sequence is, easily, the graphic novel’s best. Viewed through the perspective of infant Starfire, the first few pages are quick, action-packed, and a little disorienting. In these pages, it’s not entirely clear where Starfire came from, or what exactly happened that led up to the crash that left her stranded on earth, but from her first person limited narrative we learn just enough for the event to be both tragic and resonant. The Dodsons carry this spectacularly, capturing vivid bursts of memory separated by empty black panels that emphasize the erratic nature of Starfire’s earliest memories. What’s more, the threatening black forms and glowing red goggles of the scientists who “rescue” her throws them into a conglomerate, monstrous shape that reveals their intentions, reflected menacingly in Starfire’s huge eyes. The setup is ominous and compelling, establishing Starfire as a sympathetic character before she can even speak, and the execution is clever and fresh.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The other characters — who have far more autonomy than guinea pig Starfire — come across as one-note despite the graphic novel’s length. In a book that centers on off-shoots of characters known for their developed personalities and electric chemistry, characterization is key and the book is nothing but lacking, choosing instead to focus more of its attention on the plot. Where the mystery surrounding Starfire’s captivity is absolutely riveting the first time around, a second readthrough doesn’t yield much new beyond a scattered few Easter eggs hidden in STAR Labs, although the team’s origin does manage to stay twisted and shocking through subsequent reads. Though the story succeeds in bringing them together, the characters never really progress past their opening set of traits: Tara and Vic’s angsty rebelliousness, Gar’s naive and youthful enthusiasm and Raven’s bewildered but determined altruism. Additionally, each of these characters fits neatly into some teenage cliche or another. In fact, the adults turn out to be the more interesting characters by far, with Dr. Stone’s unquenchable thirst for progress and the Dodson’s softened but dutiful version of Deathstroke.
Further, the story spends a lot of time dropping hints for future storylines. By the end of the volume, Raven and Starfire are only tangential to the other group; they contact each other briefly or in bursts, but there is — in essence — no complete team by the conclusion. Starfire’s mystery and the origin of the team’s super powers — which connects them in body if not in mind — are resolved, but just barely. The whole graphic novel reads like one big set up for Volume 2 with more questions asked than answered.
The book’s artwork comes together under Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, and Cam Smith’s capable hands. Even so, the book’s backgrounds are left surprisingly wanting in detail and the layouts turn out to be fairly standard, which definitely speeds the action along even if it lacks ingenuity. Where they excel, however, is in the figures; close-up, the figure work is buoyant, bold, and expressive, particularly by way of the thick, dark inks that make the characters pop against the backgrounds. Unfortunately, when the focus pulls back and the inks thin out, the details in the figure work lose their clarity and expressiveness. Colorist Brad Anderson — with Terry Dodson’s aid — smoothes this out a little by adding consistency, oscillating between green and gray overtones for the Oregon setting and a yellow-orange haze for New Mexico. Overall, however, the artwork’s quality remains irregular.
Jeff Lemire, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson and Cam Smith’s “Teen Titans Earth One” Volume 1 opens with a world of promise and quickly loses its potential with trite character tropes, a one-note plot, and inconsistent art quality. Certainly separate from its predecessor, “Teen Titans Earth One” tells a story that could definitely stand on its own given more character development and a fuller story. Though the graphic novel has a solid concept at heart, it stumbles to the finish, hoping that its elaborate set up will be enough to invite readers back for a second go.