Thursday, November 3, 2011


OK, I guess I procrastinated long enough. Sorry guys--this was supposed to be done last week, but life intruded.

So recently we looked at the first two years of New Teen Titans and examined how it came along in a pivotal moment for DC comics and ultimately ended up setting the tone for the entire line more or less. Since the next volume of the Omnibus isn't due out until next year, I lamented that I wouldn't have a chance to go into the next chapter of our little saga for some time, and then, only twenty years or so too late, I got a gift in the form of New Teen Titans: Games, which I will refer to as Games from here on in, because god dammit, I hate to do anymore work than I have to.

Games is an interesting little artifact, as it really doesn't fit into any continuity, not Post-Crisis or New 52. The writer of the book, Marv Wolfman sees it more as a time capsule of an era of Titans history, which helps gloss over the continuity niggles some and also works for my purpose here tonight.

Because Games is absolutely a time capsule of the New Teen Titans.

Specifically, it's a peek at the beginning of the end.

Looking back now, it's safe to say that The Judas Contract was the peak of the New Teen Titans run. It was a long-term story that had run through every single issue of the book (more or less) to that point, contained several gut-punch surprises, featured a major character change (Robin finally became Nightwing) and felt like a culminating moment. Whatever came afterward was going to cost the book some momentum, as it was only natural--no book or creative team can sustain that pace forever.

However, leave it to DC to make things worse. Just before Crisis, DC decided to take New Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes and make them direct-market only titles, on higher quality paper and (most importantly) cost more money. It can be said that neither book has never recovered from that decision, as pulling them off the newsstands narrowed the readership down and broke the momentum of the book even more than finishing out the big plot did.

Of course, DC thought they had a solution. It went something like this: "Hey, newsstand readers, you who made New Teen Titans a success in the first place--don't despair! You can still read New Teen Titans stories . . .only you have to wait a year to read them in Tales of the Teen Titans, available on newsstands everywhere. Well, not really, you see, we cut the print runs, because who really wants a reprint book, and . . .well . . ."

It went badly for all concerned. For one thing, when New Teen Titans relaunched as a Baxter book, they'd jumped six months or so ahead so as not to step on Tales of the Teen Titans, which was still running new stories before they became reprints.

Confused yet?

Anyways, the Baxter book slogs on for awhile, and, having been cordoned off in this little petri dish of the direct market, soon begins eating its own tail. Hey guys: Raven's evil--again! Donna Try can't figure out who she is--again! Starfire and Nightwing are kept apart by a need to draw out the soap opera . . .again. Like Uncanny X-Men near the end of Claremont's run, the book was running on fumes, and the fatigue was pretty apparent on the page. Wolfman himself has said in interviews he didn't feel he had anything left to say, and wanted to leave. The question then becomes is staying too long worse than leaving I suppose.

Anyways, to place this in some kind time frame so we can actually get to talking about the book before midnight, Games is a snapshot of a time when George Perez had returned to New Teen Titans, somewhere around issue 50 of the Baxter series, and they were giving it a go and trying to recapture lighting in a bottle. It is the hope of Wolfman, Perez and all of DC comics, I would imagine, that a prospective reader of Games would look at it as a return to form from the Wolfman and Perez of the early NTT run.

That's . . .uh, not what you get. That's not to say Wolfman doesn't do his best or Perez doesn't turn in some great work--because he does. The larger pages and format really show off the detail he packs into everything and some pages echo that "painted" effect he was doing on New Teen Titans covers at the time in one sequence and it just looks great.

But the story? Well, I'll explain in more detail as we go, but the story manages to be obvious and completely inscrutable at the same time, the Titans really could be swapped out with any superteam and the book would still generally work (the big problem with games is how removed it feels from the mise en scene of the classic Titans books) the antagonists are generic ciphers without even particularly interesting gimmicks, and the Big Twist that drives the book . . .really doesn't make a goddamn bit of sense.

Much like the tail end of Claremont's X-Men it is the work of someone who long ago exhausted anything and everything they had to say about these characters and yet, like Ahab lashed to the white whale, are dragged along with it to their mutual doom.

Our story begins with a mini-Chernobyl somewhere that was part of a ridiculously elaborate way to call King Faraday out. Because when I think of the Teen Titans, I totally think of a character who is an artifact from the pre-super Silver Age. Farady gets sent a copy of a Game Manual from some guy called the Gamesmaster, who Faraday assumed was dead, and we get out first look at the bad guys, who are supposed to be representatives of different styles of game--sims, D and D, shooters, RPGs, etc. The problem with all this is that they're not particularly interesting and the "game" motif isn't a strong enough unifying force. Plus we've spent six pages with Faraday and the plot is an already impenetrable mess and we're just now mentioning the Titans.

You could say this book has a few structural problems. This whole plot was based on something the US Government actually does--namely, call in game players and SF writers to create improbable scenarios for combat to test the finest minds in the Department of Defence, which is a really nifty story and probably would make a great Greg Rucka book, but as a Titans story? Erm . . .

The actual Titans don't come into the book until page 11, and that's only Faraday showing up and being an asshole to Nightwing. Faraday has reason to believe the Gamesmaster (no, not that one. No, not Kevin Sullivan, either) is targeting the Titans and is also going to destroy New York, but before we get too far in there, seeing as how the book has actually deigned to get them all together, let's do a late 80's era ROLL CALL for our heroes, shall we?

STARFIRE--Despite the fact that a whole bunch of nonsense with her silly arrange marriage happened in the actual book, Starfire is pretty much where we left her in the early days--the bodacious, stacked cutie that even 30 years on, George Perez loves to draw. She really doesn't have much to do here except get her ass kicked by a guy named Asteroid. If I were her, I would be so pissed.

RAVEN--This would be Raven The White, having survived another battled with Trigon and her own cursed heritage which was supposed to have drawn a line under that plot forever until she came back as an evil lesbian thing and started impregnating everyone, including Starfire and Changeling (THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED) Raven is sidelined for a good chunk of this book, as her powers would have solved everything in about a fourth of the time. The rest of the time, she's her usual goddamn mopey self.

CHANGELING--Holy shit, Changeling is rocking the mullet, to much lesser effect than Eddie Guerrero, I'm afraid. Yes, having pretty much shot his storytelling bolt when Terra messed with his head, Changeling is basically just here to spar with Danny Chase and unsuccessfully try to be funny, and he somehow lacks the pathos that underlied his braggdoccio back in the day. He also gets punched by a guy made out of TV screen. Yes, this a thing which happened.

In perhaps the most benign SPOILER I have ever dropped--Changeling does not keep the mullet by the end of the book. You'll never know how glad I am about that.

JERICHO--Did they ever decide whether Jericho was gay? I ask because Wolfman was pretty well determined (and it is frequently noted in Games) that Jericho got in more vaginas than a speculum at a fertility clinic, but he had that big blonde afro, which, like Elemant Lad, means that someone was determined that he would be retroactively homosexual. The man-fro is always a signifier of . . .something. Look at Terry Long, or Bob Ross, or that one bear in the Hair Bear Bunch.

TROIA--Oh, dear. As Wonder Woman had only recently come on the scene post-Crisis, Donna Troy had been a sidekick far longer than Wonder Woman had been around in fictional time, plus she was in her early 20's and married to Terry Long's creepy ass, so the notion of continuing to call her Wonder Girl probably seemed a bit icky.

So we did this big thing where Donna got a hircut and dressed like an Athenian cheerleader and called herself Troia and, uhm . . .I suppose had people just left it at that that might have been . . .sorta OK. But then her son ends up being an evil dictator from the future and things get progressively more heachache-inducing from there. Troia, despite having a much-increased power set spends most of her time in this book punching a subway car to death. I kinda feel like she should be doing more with all of New York City in jeopardy.

NIGHTWING--He's the leader of the group and sadly, this isn't him at his best, as he gets outmaneuvered by Faraday, nearly gets killed in battle against his counterpart, and, like most of the Titans, spends way too much time reacting to things, which was a recurring problem for the book around this time, as Nightwing and before him, Robin were the cool, collected professional core the rest of the team rotated around. Nightwing in this book is so reactive he could be an X-Man.

CYBORG--Cyborg is still the Angry Black Guy, but in a marked change from standard Titans dogma, generally keeps a cool head during most of this (despite given enough motivation to be a loose cannon, like Brian Pillman) and is pretty goddamn competent. There had to be one, I guess.

DANNY CHASE--If there is one thing Games can be said to do, it's to give a whole new generation a chance to loathe and despise Danny Chase all over again.

Danny Chase was Wolfman's effort to introduce some actual teenagers back into Teen Titans, as the book was The New Early Twentysomethings would have been too big to fit on the masthead. Also, Danny would bring some humour back into the book, which had been sorely lacking since the whole Terra thing had caused Titans to generally hover at an angst level of about 5 Claremonts.

What was puzzling was that nothing in Danny's makeup seemed designed to make him either humorous or endearing. Danny Chase was a 14-year old super-genius super-spy who was a really low-level telekinetic who seemed to live to be an utter dickweasel to everyone on the Titans and puff himself up as this great big ass-kicker, and every time he got in a fight he would always get scared and cry like the biggest bitch to ever bitch the bitch.

Not that there wasn't potential there--you can be team asshole, but you better have an apparent reason for it. For example, if you continually punch holes in everyone on the team's boat, but at the same time, when the chips are down, if they swoop in to save people they profess to despise, well, there's a story there. That story never came with Danny.

Instead, Danny had to pretend to be a cooler hero by draping a sheet over his head.

Then they killed him off and then they kept the sheet as a member of the team (THIS ALSO ACTUALLY HAPPENED)

Titans fans made it plan that Danny was as welcome on the team as a fart in church, but Wolfman was determined to shove Danny Chase down everyone's throats until we loved the little prick, which led to a tug-of-war between the fans (and the editors) begging Wolfman to drop him and Wolfman insisting that the fans just didn't get what he was trying to do (to be fair, in the backmatter, he finally seems to relent a little, though we still get a big "redemptive moment" for him, which in the best Danny Chase tradition, isn't very redemptive) and revisiting this whole moment of authorial intransigence was . . .something.

Anyways, back to the plot. Faraday wants the Titans to kill the Gamesmaster, but the Titans aren't assassins, and Faraday is too much of a goddamn idiot to remember that the DC Universe has people like the Suicide Squad and Checkmate who do assassinations and shit all the time, and decides to put pressure on the Titans in order to make them do what he wants and off to the races we go.

In the best Identity Crisis tradition, the Gamesmaster attacks the Titans supporting cast, killing one of them, one that I had said "Hey, whatever happened to her?" right after I finished the Omnibus and the day before Games arrived on my doorstep. Irony is pretty ironic sometimes) and the Titans split off and take on the Gamesmater's pawns in the middle of the book which consists of fitfully cool set-piece battles that try to hammer on the whole "game" motif, but I wasn't really buying it.

Perez renders it all well enough, but I just could not get into it, as the whole story feels . . .kinda disconnected. Yes, being a standalone graphic novel, the intent was perhaps to make it more accessible, but really, anyone could be in this story, and it's kind of a shame, after so many years of building up the Titans's own corner of the DC Universe to not use it to its fullest extent.

Then again, at least it wasn't the Wildebeest Society. There's that, at least.

There's a twist in the final act of the book which you could probably work out, but as the whole plot's been so muddled and the person involved has no real connection to the Titans in the same way that Terra's betrayal really shook things up it just feels like a way to tie things up because we're running out of pages. There is a meaningful sacrifice that ultimately leads to victory, and yes, of course I mean Changeling's mullet. The story ends with the Titans back together looking down a hole and then going for pizza.

I know how they feel.

Post story, there's a great bit of backmatter wherein Wolfman annotates the original plot for Games and drops in some things that got changed and some general reflections on the book (and yes, Danny Chase) which is an interesting kind of after-action report (and indicates the problems I had with the plot were endemic from the very beginning) which I kinda wish more books had, like that annotated Heir to the Empire that came out recently.

This is gonna sound weird, but I'm gonna give a guarded recommendation to Games, believe it or not. While it has a lifeless plot that feels very much like an unfocused mess, it has dazzling art, and as a historical document of the Titans at that time (as an awful lot of Titans material, especially from this time, has never been in print, this is as close as one can get without doing a back-issue crawl) and an interesting counterpoint to the energetic and fun stories found in the Omnibus. One feels boundless and exciting, like the right people at the right moment have found the best toybox to play in and they're going to make the most of it. The other is the work of people walled in by their own success.

It's well worth a look. If anything, you can see what a real Pet Character looks like as Danny Chase makes Jessica Jones like like Kitty Pryde.


C. Elam said...

Is it sad that, despite your vagueness, I figured out both the Big Twist and the Supporting Character Who Buys It without knowing anything about the book? I checked the GCD's already-dutifully completed index and I was spot-on. Man, you weren't kidding about being obvious.

You know, Danny Chase is one of those characters where I GET what the idea was, but the execution just went off in such a direction that I find it unfathomable that Marv couldn't understand why people hated him.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, it's sad that one of the few spoilers I didn't blow right through you can see through clothing from across the street, huh? The real problem is that it has fuck-all to do with the Titans, so it's a bit of a empty shock.

I get what he was going for, but the problem is, he was so obnoxious and never quite staked out a place in the team dynamic for himself because he was so committed to being a shitheel, that he never quite gelled, and . . .well, he doesn't here, either.

I think the fact that he got replaced by his sheet pretty much says it all, really.

C. Elam said...

I keep wanting to call him "Danny Phantasm" because of that. Damn it.

This does remind me of "Titans Hunt", which ties in with your mentioning of Marv wanting off the book, too. I find Marv's latter run on the book sort of remarkable in how he became essentially RUTHLESS with what were once his pet characters. He even briefly reignited some interest in a book that was dead in the water. That's impressive, even if I'm not sure it was any good.

Kazekage said...

God dammit Chris, I would read the shit out of a book called Danny Phantasm, especially if it was like "Ocean's 11," but with ghosts.

The sad thing, I did think Phantasm was pretty slick back in the day, and I sorta liked the notion of Deathstroke ending up as Cable with the titans. It wasn't sustainable in the long-term, but it was kinda cool. Though when it was revealed as Danny Chase, it did compromise his coolness a bit.

Well, maybe not the continuing misadventures of Pantha and Baby Wildebeest.

Titans Hunt . . .that was actually the story that caused me to pick up Titans again when the 90's rolled around. Kinda like Claremont's last two years of Uncanny X-Men the notion of tearing down the team completely, then having them slowly re-coalesce and rally back for the third act was the plan, I think.

Unlike Claremont, where the third act never quite came fast enough, "Titans Hunt" had the problem of just wrapping up "Titans Hunt," then Team Titans (and yes, Danny Chase was supposed to be behind them too) shows up for "Total Chaos" then Raven pops in and starts impregnating everyone and everything got unfocused.

I did kinda like that he was willing to go that far (even if the editor of the book had to challenge him to push him in that direction.

PS: Did I adequately describe the utter mess that was the move to the Baxter series? I remain gobsmacked that anyone though this was a good idea . . .

C. Elam said...

You really did cover the newsstand/Baxter deal well! I wanted to mention it, but you covered my feelings about it so perfectly. The only thing I can think to add is that the reprint books later SKIPPED some Crisis crossovers because "Crisis was already over." I don't think that happened in the Titans book, though.

Yeah, the post-Titans Hunt era seemed to run out of gas. Which was too bad, since it had actually gotten people interested in the book again.

Kazekage said...

It's weird, because the same time DC's "Hardcover/softcover"/"Baxter/Nesstand" shit was going on, Marvel was also making a move to direct sales only comics. Only Marvel kept moving all their cult books that weren't finding a wider audience (I think Ka-Zar, Micronauts, and Dazzler were the first 3 they did, but my memory's a bit faulty) and din;t cut their nose off to spite their face.

Yeah, and losing those Crisis crossovers meant I think two Titans pretty much up and disappear with no explanation without that. The Legion ones . . .well, you lose the first "trying to save the Legion from being gutted by all the continuity changes" thing they tried with the Infinite Man, I think.

It really went kinda badly off the rails, and you can't blame all of it on Bill Jaaska. It just lacked focus, because everything constantly changed direction around the time of Zero Hour which ended Team Titans,M which changed directions like 16 times for the 24 issues of its run. They just seemed to want a Titans franchise, but once they had it, had no real idea what to do with it.

There was a lot of that going around about that time.

C. Elam said...

You are quite close - Marvel moved Micronuts, Ka-Zar, and Moon Knight to the direct market. However, Dazzler #1 was a direct market exclusive prior to that, and sold a truckload before the regular series launched on the newsstand with #2. The prevailing theory was that that trio of books would likely be cancelled otherwise, so testing the direct market that way would work well.

You know, I GET the logic behind the so-called hardcover/softcover plan. Let's make more expensive, non-returnable versions of our two most popular books! Meanwhile, we'll keep the old ones running! Money! I just think they underestimated the immediacy factor for those of us who weren't living near a comic shop at the time. It also didn't help that both Titans and Legion lost considerable creative steam within one year of the transfer.

You could argue that neither the Titans nor Legion franchises have ever been even close to the same since this plan was enacted. And heck, I think it later destroyed the Outsiders. DC effectively compromised three of its best-selling books in pursuit of bigger profits. Something of a lesson there. Too bad no one ever learns from it.

Kazekage said...

Dammit, I forgot Moon Knight. Yeah, I can kind of see Marvel's way as a hell of a lot more sensible than DC cutting its nose off to spite their face like they did. Of course, now it seems every book is a niche book, so maybe even Marvel's plan came back to bit them in the ass . . .

I get the logic behind it too, the problem is, it was never going to work at that time. Sure, now every comic buyer's programmed to salivate like Pavlov's dogs when Wednesday rolls around, but I remember going to newsstands and if it was there, I bought it, if it wasn't I forgot about it. Plus, with the exception of Marvel Tales, reprinted stories used to piss me the hell off.

Yeah, I think Perez left immedaitely after the first arc of the Baxter Titans, though being replaces by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Eduardo Baretto ain't bad as consolation prizes go.

Did the Outsiders ever recover from that? I have never fully understood the Outsiders, in all candor, except for the fact that the book only worked when Mike Barr and Jim Aparo were allowed to do crazy shit and turn it into essentially DC's Steve Gerber-era Defenders. They never really seem to know what do with it otherwise . . .

C. Elam said...

I see the current state of affairs building out of the great collapse of the mid-90s. Though certainly, the seeds were planted early.

Yeah. I remember when I first learned about it, I thought it was a TERRIBLE idea even as a kid. If only DC had thought to poll their readers...

Believe me, I love those guys! However, George had become deeply identified with that book, and I think that took some momentum away right out of the gate. It didn't help that one of DC's selling points was "getting Perez art in the deluxe format".

The Outsiders fiasco was a classic case of grossly misplaced hubris. What you need to understand about it is that you can draw a straight line from The Brave and the Bold to Batman and the Outsiders. The sentiment among some people in the 1980s was that team-up books were passe. BATO was B&B's replacement, in the same way that Web of Spider-Man replaced Marvel Team-Up and The Thing replaced Marvel Two-in-One. Except unlike those Marvel books, BATO was something of a good seller.

The problem arose when DC decided to give the book the "hardcover/softcover" treatment SIMULTANEOUS with dropping Batman from the title. Did DC overestimate how much people cared about the other Outsiders? You have to say "Yes", since few people give a damn about any of them.

The end result was that not only was the HC/SC aspect a miserable failure (only 8 issues of the direct book were reprinted for the newsstand!), but the direct market version ran only 28 issues. Batman and the Outsiders #1 had a cover date of Aug. 1983, and the last issue of the direct market series was dated Feb. 1988. It went from hit series to cancelled in less than six years.

Kazekage said...

Well, I think every movement towards putting all their eggs in the direct market basket probably happened over . . .man, years. But I think this is probably the beginning of the end in a major way.

. . .they probably would've done it anyway, sadly. All too often when confronted with the reasonable thing and the counterproductive thing, comics companies take the latter.

Oh, they were great and did great work, but it changed the tone of the book a lot and there was just no getting round that. Perez had done so much work on the Titans milieu that it just wasn't going to look "right" in anyone elses's hands.

Hubris? At a comics company? I can't beleive it. I'd never thought of Outsiders falling into the narrative of the great early 80's team book purge (kind of a shame those died out, as Marvel Team-Up was a hell of a gateway drug) I wonder what was the main thing that the Outsiders had that was so appealing? Was it badman, or was it that the stories were so daft.

Why did they drum him out, anyway? I really can't imagine that adding Looker was an adequate replacement for shuffling Batman off, really.And yeah, I can't really say that any of the Outsiders ever really broke out enough to where you could say they were taking on a little of their own.

If I remember right, Outsiders got killed off by Millennial, dinnit? I vaguely remember Dr. Jace being a Manhunter agent and turning their base against them (ah, that cliche never gets old) and man . . .six years was all it took to ice the Outsiders? Man, even the Titans and Infinity Inc did better than that (Infinity Inc just barely, of course)

C. Elam said...

Unsurprisingly, the argument against the team-up books was that they usually couldn't incorporate subplots and had to be standalone stories. I know, isn't it shocking that they would kill them because of such things? /sarcasm

Looking back at that time, I think the initial appeal of the Outsiders was that it was a team book when those were really exploding AND it had Batman. There was probably a train of thought that it could be the next Titans, at a time when DC really wanted to find the next Titans.

You know, I don't think I've ever read WHY they dropped Batman. I have this feeling it was some sort of editorial office conflict. Otherwise, it was the most suicidal creative move ever. It was ill-timed, that is for sure.

Yeah, they got jobbed out in Millennium, and Infinity Inc. got something like another 6 months after the crossover ended. In terms of their runs, both books ended up being about the same, but I can see expectations were much different. Infinity Inc. was always a direct market exclusive, obviously a niche book, and had a decent run that could have been longer were it not for outside factors. The Outsiders launched on the newsstand and were tagged for greatness right from the get-go. Then they went direct, lost Batman, and tanked within three years.

Kazekage said...

Ah yes. Heaven forbid we didn't have a standalone book that couldn't be easily ghettoized as a cartoon tie-in or part of an "all-ages line." Yes, we wouldn't want to make it easy for people to get into comics, would we?

Didn't they crossover with the Titans as well? (Back when Titans was the book you wanted to get a rub from--hell that's how we got Omega Men) I think they paid lip service to it with Terra and Geo-Force . . .

I can't recall it either, but then I never really read Outsiders. If I had to guess, I have a suspicion it grew from that "Let's make Batman a real loner" deal they went through in the mid-to-late 80's.

Yeah, Infinity was not doing great at all, but holy shit they did better than the Outsiders. I could make a case for Infinity being a Baxter book--it was pretty niche by design. I always thought it was a shame that Infinity and Titans didn't cross over when both books were a lot stronger propositions.

. . .or am I thinking of when they crossed over with Outsiders? I seem to remember they crossed over with both books.

C. Elam said...

Yeah, Geo-Force and Terra were siblings! I get the impression that Mike W. Barr...might not have known the ultimate plans for Terra. That got swept under the rug as time went by.

Infinity Inc. did cross over with both Titans and Outsiders, but none of those books were at their peak. Actually, I think all of those occurred in 1987. Marv didn't even script his Titans issue. But then, that was when he was mining his Dial "H" For Hero run for ideas in the book (THIS ALSO ACTUALLY HAPPENED).

Kazekage said...

Yeah, there was a little tag at the end of The Judas Contract where Geo-Force brought it up and said "Yeah, this is all pretty well fucked up, but we were never close, so what-evs." Geo-Force: kind of a dick at funerals.

Dude, I remember that Dial H for Hero arc. Danny Chase actually jobbed to evil Vicki and cried like a bitch about it forever . . .oh Danny, it's wonderful how much you suck.

C. Elam said...

I used to own the Batman and the Outsiders Annual #1, and Geo-Force felt sad about it for a few panels there. Then he got over it and they fought the Force of July.

Marv did it before then even! He brought in the Silver Fog, who was a villain that appeared in Dial H. But it was OK, because the reader who submitted the idea was HARLAN ELLISON.

...Honest, this ALSO happened. I like to imagine that Mr. Ellison still wears his free T-shirt to this day.