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.
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.