A man's first Ominbus is a much cherished moment. After all, one so rarely gets books large, ungainly and heavy enough to double as a murder weapon, should the need arise. The New Teen Titans Omnibus Vol. 1 is such a book, weighing in at a hefty 686 pages, I imagine I could easily bludgeon someone to death with it, if I so chose.
Rather than that, I decided instead to review it.
Recently we talked a little about the "Marvelisation" of DC that had happened in the 70's and 80's. To put it as succinctly as possible--what was happening was that Marvel people were going over to DC and vice versa, and with each movement of talent, certain changes to the content and character of the books happened.
It's especially pronounced around the late 70's/Early 80's. You have Firestorm, which is DC doing the Spider-Man formula in all but name. You have All-Star Comics and later All-Star Squadron which fill in the history of the JSA, helmed primarily by Roy Thomas who had just come from Marvel and did, among other things, fill in their Golden Age history.
And you had the New Teen Titans, which, in many ways, copied the approach that made X-Men a top-selling book. Indeed, one of the biggest guaranteed argument starters back in the day was whether or not NTT ripped off X-Men. I'm not going to pry that can of worms open again, but it's something worth thinking about. I wouldn't necessarily say that they straight up ripped it off, only that there is a similar approach at work.
Because both books made their successes by following the . . .er, following formula. You take a cult hit book that's been on the shelf for a few years. Add in a few new characters, but keep a few of the old ones around as a link to the previous history of the title (also providing grist for the mill for stories) Bring in characters from other forgotten books--it changes the team dynamic and allows you to fold in plotlines from their other books. Then add in some new characters that can generate stories of their own. Mix it all together by plotting in the following way: Small one-issue plots become larger extended plots that weave in and out of the book, creating an extended soap-opera-ish narrative where one feels like there is a living world in this book and anything can happen.
And it goes without saying, add in some mind control and domination stuff. I had forgotten NTT did that a lot, but, well . . .George Perez, y'know.
In any event, it was 1980, and DC was still smarting from its last attempt to expand their market share (the "DC Implosion") and were at the time time getting quite an influx of people coming over from Marvel again who weren't happy with the way things were across the street. Into our story comes Marv Wolfman (creator of, among other things, Nova, and former Editor in Chief of Marvel comics back when it seems the only criteria for being EIC was "be the 10th caller") and George Perez, who was well-regarded but not quite a superstar just yet, mostly because the hallmarks of the George Perez style (insane detail, huge elaborate panels stocked with characters) weren't quite coming together as they should.
(In fact, as an aside and because I have no other place to put this thought, Perez's work is very dependent on who is inking him at this stage of things. Perez and Pablo Marcos tends to soften his details down but not in a bad way--just in a way that calls to mind his Fantastic Four and Marvel Two-in-One work, where his Kirby influence seemed to have a bit more sway. Dick Giordano, who inks the teaser comic that opens the book subsumes a lot of his detail with his thin and somewhat angular ink lines. His longest serving partner on this run of the book, Romeo Thangal, finds a happy medium and really enhances his sense of detail)
So DC gave them a book, the New Teen Titans, and Wolfman and Perez both figured it probably wouldn't run more than six issues and so decided to just have fun with the six issues they had and do they book they wanted to do. And so, without any sort of strict editorial guidance (obviously, this would never happen today) New Teen Titans was sent out into the world . . .
. . .and soon enough found its audience and became the DC's big breakout hit. Not bad for something that even the people working on it thought only had six months to live, eh?
Our Omnibus here covers the first two years of the book and yes, I promise we're getting to the meat and potatoes in a bit. But before we do that, let's get to know our Titans in a segment the longtime readers of this blog (the ONLY readers of this blog) know well. ROLL CALL!
ROBIN--You might remember him from being Batman's sidekick. Robin is the glue that holds the team together, and for the purpose of this book, functions as the only "normal" one that everyone else is allowed to be crazy around (The Dave Foley, if you will) Is typically most consumed with proving himself to Batman, a little thing which culminates years later when he finally steps into the role of Nightwing.
WONDER GIRL--Before she became a continuity nightmare (but not too far from that) Wonder Girl was the ultility infielder for the Titans in that she had no real extant drama (er, yet) and she had enough time as a member of the Titans and was enough of a blank slate with a connection to Wonder Woman's mythos that would allow for story potential and ultimately, her death from Mystery Collapse disorder.
She also dated Terry Long, who made his first appearance in this. I'd like to thank the Internet for beating the "Terry Long is a creep" meme into the ground so this is the extent that I have to talk about that douchebag.
KID FLASH--Wally West runs very fast, and is sort of the odd man out, as he is manipulated on to the team at first, has a thing for Raven that never quite goes anywhere, and generally seems to the member most intent on getting out as soon as is convenient. That's not a knock against his character--he has some good bits in the book, but he's one of the thinnest-drawn characters in the team.
CYBORG--One of our brand-new characters, Cyborg is . . .an interesting case. For one thing, he's a pretty powerful character, unusual when you consider the most powerful black guy in the Titans last go-round only had a trumpet. Cyborg is estranged from his father because his father made him into a cyborg after he'd Tampered With Things Man Was Not Meant To Know and his son got crippled. Cyborg is a genius and a super-athlete and plays the role of the malcontent in the team, as he's not 100% on board with joining the Titans, or at least he says he is.
STARFIRE--The Red Monika of her day, Starfire is cute and has boobs and George Perez unmistakably loves drawing her, as a casual flip-through of this book will tell you. She also flies around and wants to kill people, but never really seems to do that successfully. It's rescuing her that actually pulls the trigger on the Titans uniting, and her back-story actually proved sturdy enough that the Omega Men ended up spinning off outta this. If you don't know who the Omega Men are I . . .can't really help you, as I never figured that book out.
RAVEN--Has Raven ever not been a problematic character? Because she's always seemed so to me. She's committed to an extreme sort of total pacifism but is not above manipulating other people to do her fighting for her, has powers that 30 years in continue to be pretty ill-defined, and, well, she really doesn't do all that much on her own, as we'll see.
CHANGELING--At first, Changeling seems like the most irritating comic relief character there could ever be, but scratch the surface and you see dude has a really shit life. Former member of the Doom Patrol that he is, Changeling has already seen his biological parents die, his adoptive parents die, and his stepfather routinely lose his fucking shit and turn evil. He's the Shinji Ikari of the DC Universe, if Shinji Ikari had been crossed with a third-rate Borscht Belt comedian.
Our story opens with a 16-page teaser from DC Comics Presents. These little tipped-in books were kind of a cool gimmick to trail new series, and I'm sure paper considerations would make something like this impossible today, but it was a damn good idea, really. Anyways, the teaser opens with Robin tripping balls as he seems to be simultaneously helping save S.T.A.R labs from a hostage crisis and fighting a big slimy monster at the same time. Needless to say he's a little bit confused, but it's a handy way for the team to show up as a unit, show off its powers, and set up an interesting paradox--Robin and co form the team as much because they've already seen the team together.
Our first issue opens with the Titans uniting to free Starfire from the Gordanians, which somehow covertly ended up becoming the DCAU's standard aliens, but sometime, apparently it happened. Early on we get sketches of what everyone's role is going to be on the team--Changeling cracks jokes, Cyborg complains, Raven pulls the strings and never seems to do anything, and Robin holds it all together. This would probably take six issues today, I'll bet.
Incidentally, while they're fighting the Gordanians, they wreck the apartment of Grant Wilson, who is tight with the H.I.V.E. one of the dozens of villainous conspiracies which were stalking around the DCU at the time. Grant volunteers for the H.I.V.E. to give him superpowers, only he's a bit of a reckless tool and gets himself killed forcing Deathstroke the Terminator, the guy the H.I.V.E. wanted to hire in the first place. The particular plate will be kept spinning in a direct sense through the next 40+ issues of the book as Deathstroke, the H.I.V.E. and the Titans fight in various permutations off and on.
Issue three introduces us to the Fearsome Five, a group of . . .shall we say third-rate villains led by Dr. Light before he was all rape-happy. While this initially seems just a mere stunt to make sure the book has an action sequence, it's actually tying into the main plot for the first six-issue arc.
We find out in issue four that Psimon of the Fearsome Five is an agent of Raven's father, a rather goofy looking demon named Trigon. This leads in a roundabout way to two major things--the Titans fighting the Justice League of America and having their big "we're not like you" statement of purpose, and Zatanna revealing that Raven has been manipulating the team to fight Trigon since the beginning, up to an including making Kid Flash fall in love with her. Naturally, this causes the team to dissolve just when they're needed most.
Curt Swan shows up to do one chapter of this story, I should mention, which is an interesting clash of styles considering all that happens in this arc. Since I'm talking of things I miss that they don't do in comics nowadays, I kinda miss the whole "use the splash page a summary/teaser for the main story" thing. It's kind of cool.
In any event, as befitting such a problematic character as Raven, her backstory is equally headache-inducing: Trigon raped her mom, who fell through the cracks of the social safety net (Regan was really hard on that "demon rape recovery for unwed mothers" program) and got spirited away to a magic land of sanctimonious pacifists who swear to defend the universe against Trigon, but don't really want to, y'know, do anything.
Trigon isn't much better. Apparently he can crush universes, and has phenomenal power and all that, but really doesn't do much with it short of act like a dickhead and shoot rays at people. He sorta works as a uniting force for this story, because all he has to do is show up in the final act, look super-scary, get defeated, and end the arc.
Unfortunately, they kept bringing him back to diminishing returns, which was kind of a continuing problem with the Titans. The strength of the book, like X-Men, was the fact that they had a set number of plates they kept spinning--if you hopped off for a bit and hopped back on when, say Deathstroke came back, you could be brought up to speed with a minimum of fuss, because everything just goes 'round and 'round and that's . . .OK.
For a while.
The problem comes in which you don't change up the plates. X-Men under Claremont finally fell in on itself for me personally because I could not stand to read one more story about the Marauders or the Shadow King or Genosha . . .I had seen that come around so many times I knew just what to expect and I did not want any more. Titans undergoes a similar disintegration, and Wolfman's final issues, which are maybe 15 years from these early days are just . . .embarrassing because of how obviously they're just running on fumes at that point.
But that's the future. Let's get back to the now. The Fearsome Five show up again at the conclusion of the Trigon arc to do that old beloved classic: Turning the heroes headquarters against them (man, given how many times this happens, you really wonder about superhero real estate. It's like fucking poltergeists, only so much worse) positively ancient villain The Puppeteer returns for some mind control shenanigans, and the Deathstroke pops back up to rope the Titans into his plan to pay the H.I.V.E. back for killing his son, among other things. Oh, and Deathstroke kills Changeling, more or less.
But that's just a means to get us to the next big plot--the New Teen Titans vs. the Titans of Greek Myth. This, uh . . .wow. Wonder Girl gets a Titanic mickey slipped to her and becomes the love-slave of one of the Titans (although given the competition is Terry Long, this may or may not be a step up) and it's up to the Titans plus the Amazons, then finally the Olympian gods themselves, to beat back the Titans.
The problem with all this is that it's not terribly exciting (and sadly, it seems Perez did not get that memo) and the Teen Titans are kind of sidelined as Greek gods fight other different Greek gods and there's some baffelgab about free will and no one really ever raises their hands and says "Hey man, that shit with Wonder Girl being a love slave is foul," which I feel is a missed opportunity of sorts. It tries for an epic feel, but can't really close the deal, possibly because it's too far afield from where Titans works best, which is a more earthbound milieu.
Thankfully, the next extended storyline works far, far better, as the Titans get drawn into the search for the Doom Patrol and end up in a battle between a number of their old foes. This is the intro of the New Brotherhood of Evil (Don't worry--they still have the French gorilla) who go on to become recurring nemeses.
It's a pretty decent story, as Changeling actually gets to purge some demons he's been dragging around (and create a few more as he relentlessly pursues the people who took his family from him and he's willing to kill them for doing so) and we get a story that could have easily have been a "Doom Patrol story in all but name but done here because that's the book Wolfman's writing" made to fit with the Titans milieu a lot better than the Titans of Myth arc does.
A few done-in-ones close out the first 20 issues of New Teen Titans. They're . . .okay, and quite necessary after the Titans of Myth and Doom Patrol stories, as we needed a good stretch of time where we could get closer to the cast and feel a bit more grounded, as it's a danger with Constant! Epic! Action! that it's also meant to be more than constant epic action.
The final four issues in the Omnibus is the 4-issue Tales of the New Teen Titans mini-series, which provided expanded origin stories for Cyborg, Raven. Changeling, and Starfire. It also provided George Perez a chance to collaborate with a couple of great artists who inked his pencils. The Changeling issue features Gene Day inks (it was one of his last jobs before he died, sadly) and it is an incredible combination and makes me wish that 1) They'd been able to do more stuff together and 2) More people knew how good Gene Day was. While these issues were generally in the business of filling out the backstories of the lesser established characters, they also function as teasers for newer plot elements that will eventually filter back into the main book.
So . . .being we're talking about a book that is 31 years old, the question must be . . .do they hold up? And the answer is . . .well, sorta. Wolfman has a reputation for writing melodramatically and really shoveling on the purple prose and that is not an undeserved charge. However, Chris Claremont was doing the exact same thing across the street on X-Men and both books were selling quite well, so obviously that was what people wanted to read back then. Despite that handicap, these books have a tremendous energy--Wolfman and Perez did 6 issues of whatever they wanted figuring they had nothing to lose, and the book reflects that. Compare the joy and excitement these first six issues of New Teen Titans have with six issues of the latest book to spin out of a crossover or editorial diktat, and see which one feel less like work to get through.
There's a feeling of boundless possibility here, and being this is the early years of the run we're far away from the stuff that would finally kill the book--the repeating plots, the whole Baxter Paper bullshit, etc. Believe it or not, the notion of superhero comics universes being tightly vertically integrated things with ironclad canons was actually a fairly late development in the history of superhero comics--this book and All-Star Comics treat a superhero universe with 50 years (at the time) of accumulated history as a great big toybox to play in, and don't sweat things like making sure ever story lines up with every other one--there is an effort made to keep everything consistent, and the rest is just there to have fun with. There's a freedom in these stories that is almost unheard of in today's books.
It was nice to revisit this time and these characters and have it still have a certain charm even now. As to the rest of y'all, well, just remember: oftimes nostalgia isn't what it used to be.