Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.
Storytelling Engines: Teen Titans
(or “The Inevitable Idea”)
Sometimes in the world of comics, a series is born not out of inspiration, but out of tradition. Team books tend to be the most susceptible to this “inevitable idea”; once you have a number of individual super-heroes, the logical next step is to put together a book where they team up. And if each of those super-heroes has kid sidekicks, well…then the logical next step is to do a book centered around those sidekicks. ‘Teen Titans’, which we’re examining today, started from that inevitable idea.
The next step in the engine seems just as inevitable (or at least, it probably did in the mid-1960s, when the team formed.) Since you’re doing a book about teenagers, and since teenagers more and more have their own culture, their own slang, their own music, and their own trends, why not focus the book around that? You’ll catch the wave of trendiness, and surf it all the way to the bank (one presumes.)
And, to continue the inescapable rush of ideas, the new Batman TV series has established a “camp” ethos that many comics had difficulty escaping during this period. So why not just roll with it?
So with that, the storytelling engine seems to just fall into place for the Teen Titans, without the writers seeming to need to add effort at all. The sidekicks of the major super-heroes (Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Speedy) meet modern teens, and help them with their “now” problems by fighting pop-culture-themed villains like Big Daddy Ding-Dong, the Mad Mod, and the Scorcher–all in the camp Sixties style popularized by the ‘Batman’ TV series. (As an aside, it should be noted for the sake of historical interest that there was no “Wonder Girl” acting as sidekick to Wonder Woman prior to the team’s creation; the creator of the Teen Titans, Bob Haney, was never known for caring much about continuity, and simply assumed that the flashback stories printed in ‘Wonder Woman’ referred to a separate character named “Wonder Girl”, and not to Wonder Woman when she was younger. Thirty-some years later, and they’re still trying to get her origin straight.)
So, does being “inevitable” make this a good story engine, or just one that the writers couldn’t avoid doing? The answer very much depends on what you mean by “good”. Many of the stories that came out of this era of the Titans haven’t aged well, but the fact of the matter is, it did what it needed to do when it needed to do it. And although some new heroes have crept into the team’s lineup, and the tone has become decidedly less camp, the “teen sidekicks on their own together” and the pop-culture story pool remain the background of the series today.
But I doubt you’ll see the return of Big Daddy Ding-Dong anytime soon.
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