Saturday, July 7, 2012


 Well, this made a nice set of bookends, didn't it? No sooner did we get done talking about the other big loss of Innocence Moment for Superhero Comics in the 1980s, than here we are looking at DC's counterpart to Marvel's overwrought superhero melodrama. Because what the Dark Phoenix Saga was to Marvel, so is The Judas Contract to DC, and just like it's other-company counterpart, many horrible sins have been done its name.

 We'll get to those in a minute. First, a word about this particular Omnibus. While Volume One (which we discussed here recently) was a complete snapshot of the New Teen Titans' first year, the second volume of the Omnibus actually omits an issue--#38, the "Who Is Donna Troy" issue. I've heard various reasons why it was omitted--would have made the book too big, DC wanted the entirety of The Judas Contract in this volume, being held for Volume 3 which is more Donna Troy-centric, whatever, but it annoys, for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which that "omnibus," by definition, means "includes everything." For another, thew narrative flow of New Teen Titans builds specifically to that point, and pulling it out leaves a noticeable gap in the storylines of the book.

 Because in its third and fourth year (and Marv Wolfman says as much in the introduction) New Teen Titans pretty much abandons single-issue storylines and becomes geared towards being a soap opera-esque book wherein all the characters are doing something and the main plot is rotated out amongst the characters. It's not a bad approach really--it's what made Claremont's Uncanny X-Men such a big seller through the 80's, and DC's other big seller, Legion of Superheroes, had done it to such a degree, the actual storylines of who was fighting whom were secondary to the soapy "who's sleeping with who" stuff.

 So I can see why they did it--it was a doctor tested and proven effective way of using the monthly serial fiction concept to created a dedicated readership that was invested in the characters to such a degree where they were locked into the continuing story, even if by its very nature said story would have no end point.

 The "no end point," becomes a problem, however. Because people get tired of the Titans (or the Legion, of the X-Men) always getting hammered by misery and angst and never getting anywhere or only progressing when the plot decides they must. While it's true that conflict generates drama, at some point the conflict must be resolved, or the reader is just bled white by the relentless conflict.

 The other problem is, and this happened in all cases (and soap operas too, not that I think about it) the casual fans were driven off for that reason (and more--if the idea target audience for superhero comics is 12 and very soon after one drifts away from that kind of melodrama and it becomes a bit embarrassing and silly. Did for me, anyways) the audience dwindles down to the die-hards, and then, things get bad, because writing specifically for the die-hard audience leads to excruciating stories that are less about telling good stories and more about enshrining fan theories or revisiting the glories of the past and not moving forward.

 Or, if you prefer, The New Teen Titans: Games.

 But we're not there yet. Volume Two covers the years of 1982-1984, The Titans as a book is at the peak of it's popularity, the DC Universe is humming along, blissfully unaware of teething problems to come, and the words "Baxter Paper" are not yet spoken with dread and resentment.

 The book opens with the two-issue intro of longtime Titans foe Brother Blood, and . . .damn, I don't want to be too negative right out of the gate, but Brother Blood is one of the most god-damned annoying Titans villains in the whole canon. Visually, he's pretty impressive (Perez kept his design simple and tight, which can be a problem with his costume designs otherwise) but conceptually, I have problems, so many problems.

 Brother Blood is meant to be an indictment of the mania for kids going to cults and being brainwashed, which was a thing people were scared shitless about in the 1980s, and since Titans paid lip-service to being right on with the now times, naturally that was a way to go on it, and that's fine as far as it goes.

 The problem is, as a recurring villain, Brother Blood is kind of crap--he's a lot of ill-defined motivations and writer fiat in a white cloak. Much like the later Mister Sinister over in X-Men, Brother Blood has some barely coherent and utterly convoluted agenda that is never made clear, no personality to speak of, and an obnoxious habit of winning against the Titans even when he loses. And since we're given no reason to care about Blood beyond that (apart from the fact he runs a ker-azy creepy cult) this only succeeds in making the Titans (our nominal lead characters) look like schmucks.

 And this happens a LOT in this volume.

 On the other hand, there's quite a few pages of Robin getting stripped down and tortured by Blood's goons, which makes me think George Perez enjoyed himself that day (something for tha ladiez, y'all!) and makes me wonder what would have happened if Perez and Claremont ever collaborated on an adaptation of like, The Story of O, or something? Maybe the planet would explode.

 Speaking of bondage, would it shock you that the next Titans storyline was an epic wherein Starfire's sister keeps her in bondage for three whole issues and an annual? It really shouldn't. Basically, picking up on a thread from New Teen Titans #1, the slavers who captured Starfire return under the command of her sister, Blackfire, who spirits her back to the Vega system for her masters in the Citadel (no, not that one) The Titans give chase in partnership with the Omega Men, not because the Omega Men are any great help (more on that in a sec) but more because once New Teen Titans got hot as a book, DC launched damn near every book they could from it, hoping that the Titans heat would rub off on them.

 One of the days, I will die. On that day, when I meet God in Heaven, I will ask him "What was the deal with the Omega Men?" There's like 90 of them, none of whom are terribly interesting, their backstory would make your head explode, and they're idiots, helped only slightly by the fact that their enemies, the Citadel, are even stupider than they are.

 My proof is the character of Demonia. Demonia, much like Starrscream, is constantly working to undermine the Omega Men and gain control of the Vega system. Also like Starscream, Demonia does this in in the stupidest way possible, loudly announcing her plans and her intentions out loud as though she comes from a society that knows not of thought balloons or narrative captions.

 Even stranger is that Changeling calls her on this and . . .teams up with her anyways. I didn't say she was the only idiot around, did I?

 Anyways, one thing leads to another and while this is supposed to draw a line under Starfire's pre-issue #1 stuff, ultimately, the Titans are swallowed up in this whole business (kinda like what happens to the X-Men whenever they pile off into space) and really it all ends up reading like a hard sell for the Omega Men, which in my own case, failed utterly.

 We get back to Earth (in all ways) for two issues wherein we catch up on various subplots and, in a demonstration of the Titans as the "right on with the right now!" deal with the scourge of teenage runaways. It's . . .not bad, but your tolerance for this depends greatly on how well you can tolerate Wolfman's prose, which can be a bit . . .much, at times. I understand it's coming from a good place, but this is a Very Special Episode Of New Teen Titans, all right.

 Two things--Terra shows up (a couple issues before she's "officially" introduced) and oh lordy, I forgot how insane Terra's first costume was, with the fake brown ponytail and the antlers. She totally clowns Changeling (no hard task that) and vanishes in time for her "official" intro in #28. Since we're in a lull and Terra will drive the stories in the remainder of this volume, let's talk about Terra for a little.

 The 1980s were all about divisions--Lakers vs. Celtics, Coke vs. Pepsi, Michael Jackson vs. Prince, and New Teen Titans vs. Uncanny X-Men. There was a constant knock against the New Teen Titans when it came out and began to get popular because it was seen as "copying" the X-Men, which both Wolfman and Claremont both countered, rightly, by saying all they'd done was take two cult-hit books and make them wildly popular. However, they both did share the same model of soap-opera book, which may or may not have been the indentifier.

 Nevertheless, as a clever way of tweaking the fandom, Wolfman decided to take it head-on. Two years ago, the X-Men added a new member, Kitty Pryde, a charming, adorable little teen moppet who caught on like wildfire and became so many prepubescent reader's first crushes, it's glaringly easy to see why comics are in the state they're in today. Wolfman created Terra, an adorable teen moppet who . . .well, actually, she wasn't adorable at all. Her personality was like being massaged with a belt-sander, she lied to the Titans constantly (and badly--again, Demonia is not the only gross idiot in this book), and at times, she came off as dangerously unstable, which, when you consider her power set, made her something of a weapon of mass destruction.

 We'll get to the punchline with this in a minute, but for her early appearances, Terra is just a wild card, obviously hiding something, we're just not sure what. While the Terra stuff is going on, the Titans are caught in the middle of a fight between Brother Blood and the Brotherhood of Evil (and for all I know the Brothers in Arms, the Bruise Brothers, the Brotherhood of the Fist, and the Beverly Brothers) the latter of whom decide to drag in Raven, make her flip out, and nearly kill Kid Flash. In short, the usual slow Thursday at Titans' Tower.

 Meanwhile, in Subplots Theatre, Donna Troy meets Terry Long's ex-wife, and I find my reaction to Terry Long is a lot like my reaction to Ayn Rand--at first blush, it's merely obnoxious, but upon prolongued contact, I find both loathsome and foolhardy.

 Robin also starts acting like an asshole for reasons never clearly spelled out. This is supposed to lead to a plot point paid off later on, wherein, with a new Robin (Jason Todd, in his red-headed, Dick-Grayson-in-all-but-name-incarnation) forces Dick Grayson to question who he is in relation to Batman, however, since we're never clued in from Grayson's point of view why he's a grumpy asshole in a way we might relate to, we just get him growling at Donna to leave him alone and treating Starfire like shit.

 Terra changes costumes and joins the Titans officially as various other subplots like Cyborg's would-be girlfriend's psycho ex and the Robin's uneasy partnership with Adrian Chase burble along. Kid Flash is debating leaving the team because he's got the hots for Raven, but Raven is batshit crazy and can't allow herself to love or whatever Star Trek bullshit.

Terry Long proposes to Donna, and Brother Blood also manages to make the Titans look like idiots again. In other news, water is wet, and fire is hot.

 Thunder and Lightning show up in issue #32, and, uhm . . .well. They're a bit thinly drawn, aren't they? Thunder and Lightning are half-American/half-Vietnamese (because it was like, the times, man) Siamese twins (OK, the Geography's a bit wonky already) who get separated in a magic city and get super powers which are killing them, and they need their father to help. Naturally, they decide the best way to get help is to stand in the middle of a city blowing up shit and threatening everyone rather than, you know, asking a question directly. Thunder and Lightning, ladies and gentlemen: when superpowers deny you the concept of an "inside voice." The Titans pledge to help them, then forget about them for four issues. In their defence, Thunder and Lighting are pretty boring, so it's easy to do.

 The utterly loopy done in one "Who Killed Trident?" (by the end, you won't care either!) follows, which is just a blind to keep Subplot Theatre humming along, specifically the Adrian Chase storyline which begins to come to a head. You may or may not be wondering whether it is a good use of time and space to devote so much to a character who has a very thin connection to the Titans (indeed, most of Chase's appearances are him saying something Punisher-esque and Robin going "uh," or words to that effect over and over again) and then the Terminator shows up looking for Sarah Conn-er, wait, wrong Terminator, this is Deathstroke. This finally pays off Terra's evasiveness because surprise surprise, y'all! She's working for Deathstroke!

 Meanwhile, Cyborg's girlfriend's psycho ex gets more psycho, Donna accepts Terry Long's proposal (even more psycho) and Adrian Chase blows up.

 We finally pay off the Adrian Chase business in New Teen Titans Annual #2, wherein, we learn that Adrian Chase survived the explosion and became the Vigilante, who is not at all DC's answer to the Punisher, because Vigilante wears ski goggles and totally sucks at "Death Wish"-esque crime-ighting, getting himself shot two pages after he appears on panel.

 Oh, yeah, and there's some guy in a satellite hiring super-villains for the Mob, too. This plot goes absolutely nowhere and is only highlighted here as a footnote for what happens when certain plotlines are stopped at the starting line, and any memories you may have to the contrary are merely the products of a disordered mind.

 This is, obviously, less a Titans story (though the usual Titans subplots are gurgling along in the background) and more a pilot for the forthcoming Vigilante series, which, if you remember it at all, you're either remembering the Alan Moore two-part story (wherein,naturally, Vigilante is a non-factor) the fact that his main villains, Cannon and Sabre, were  DC's first openly gay couple, or the fact that Vigilante blew his head off in the last issue of his series. That these are the three main takeaways from Vigilante's run in his own series should tell you all you need to know about the viability of Adrian Chase as a long-running character.

 Back to the series proper, as we pay off Cyborg's plotline in issue #35 and remember that oh yeah, Thunder and Lightning need our help, which gives Wolfman and Perez an opportunity to re-introduce the H.I.V.E. for reasons that will become clearer later on. Then we have a crossover with Batman and the Outsiders, wherein Robin's Batman adequacy issues are raised, we find out that Terra is Geo-Force's sister and Mike W. Barr writes everyone generally out of character because if New Teen Titans is DC's Uncanny X-Men, Batman and the Outsiders was DC's Steve Gerber-era Defenders where he just wrapped his characters around whatever crazy idea he had that month--the Nuclear Family is actually my favourite.

 But now it's time for The Judas Contract, the saga that defined the Titans and . . .you know, actually before we get to it, let me hit on something. In the book, Give My Regards To The Atomsmashers, Brad Meltzer writes a long and rather embarrassing essay about The Judas Contract in general and Terra specifically, and it becomes rather apparent that he saw Terra as more of a broken widdle bird than the raging psycho she was. As this essay ground on, I began to wonder had Metlzer and I read the same story, and then I began to wonder had I fallen into some parallel Earth. Even Marv Wolfman made it plain that Terra was always a traitor with no redeeming value who'd always lied to the Titans and never waved in her goal of bringing them down, and this notion that Terra was some kind of fallen creature who needed to be redeemed (which Metlzer tried mightily to do--why do you think Geo-Force was in his Justice League run?--and was prevented from finally doing) is, it must be clearly under stood, merely the product's of Meltzer's disordered mind.

 That said, as The Judas Contract was the thing that made Brad Meltzer want to write superhero comics, I think a case could be made that Wolfman and Perez unleashed a monster worse than Terra on the world.

 Anyhow, The Judas Contract opens with the Titans attacking Brother blood, and if you've never read this issue, you kinda might have anyways, as Rob Liefeld ripped off the first few pages wholesale for X-Force #1. Given that Liefeld's early fan work owed a huge debt to Perez, pretend I re-did the above paragraph and did a find-and-replace for "Brad Meltzer" on there if you so wish. This thing is long enough already.

 Naturally, this leads to Brother Blood making the Titans look like dim-bulbs, but we should probably take that as written by now. It's all a backdrop for the biggest deal, which is that the Titans decide to reveal their secret identities to Terra (not that they had been terribly careful before) Kid Flash leaves the team, and Dick Grayson stops being Robin.

 Oh, and we also find out that Deathstroke is banging Terra, which is really gross, but when you consider that Terra's template was also getting jailbated by someone a good deal older, it's not really surprising/appalling as it maybe should be.

 Also, the book's title changes to Tales of the Teen Titans, and the beginning of the end is here at last--the Baxter Era looms before us, gathering its power, waiting for the day when it will alienate its readership, destroy reader goodwill, and leave an insular coterie of anoraks as the last ones standing. But more on that when/if there's a volume 3.

 Meanwhile, various subplots ensue, and Terra nearly screws everything up by going psycho on Changeling, and Deathstroke finally puts his plan into motion, capturing all the Titans by the end of Part 1. This leaves Dick Grayson roaming free trying to figure out just what the hell is going on, and wouldn't you know it, Deathstroke's wife and his younger son Joesph drop by for a heapin' helpin' of exposition. It's a testament to the skill of Wolfman and Perez that despite the fact that the entire story stops dead for this, things don't really drag that much.

 Dick Grayson finally decides on an identity and pops the fuck out of his collar, becoming Nightwing. Joesph is also a superhero and calls himself Jericho. Jericho is one of those characters who really belongs to a specific creator, but who in everyone else's hands has a lot of problems (not least is the plain an unalterable truth of our times--blond dudes shouldn't have man-fros and muttonchops. Did Dennis DeYoung teach us nothing about this?) and really . . .history will prove that out. But Jericho joins the party here, is the big takeaway from that.

 It all comes to a head in Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3, wherein Deathstroke, Terra, The Titans, and the H.I.V.E. get into a big fights and Terra finally flips her shit for good and kills herself trying to kill everyone. Wolfman pretty well comes down hard on her in her final moments, declaring that "due to the fault of no one but herself, she is insane" and lamenting that he powers could have done so much good, but all she ever really wanted to use them for was destruction.

 It's an appropriately grim and tragic finale and is a very effective story, building on the four years of internal history the title had been building for the final payoff. The key word in that last sentence is "payoff," as storylines from here on in will skip the "payoff" part and just mine past history over and over again to generate misery for the Titans. That The Judas Contract has the impact it does is that it ends, and the book is forever changed afterwards, which is all you can really do in these "never really end" superhero comics, and is appallingly rarely tried.

 Terra is left dead . . .mostly. Titans readers had to deal with more than a few fake-outs over the years, made into torturous continuity pretzels by the fact that even the people writing the comics were unable to make up their damn minds about who the "new" Terra was (Another, later, Terra sidestepped that mostly by being as far away from that continuity snarl as possible) but it was so much a "have your cake and eat it too" way of mining the past without actually doing anything, that it was just Titans the series contemplating its own navel and should be looked at as such.

 In all, The New Teen Titans Omnibus is an instructive snapshot of a period in time, even with all the troubling storytelling trends and questionable decisions that begin to crop up as the wild originality of the early years settles into the familiar and finally into formula. It ultimately wasn't a sustainable model of storytelling, for various reasons, but again, this stuff read like the deepest stuff you could imagine when you were nine, and while (ideally) one grows out of that notion that "melodrama=real life," there's still some value to be had in studying it now.


C. Elam said...

You have by and large nailed the biggest problem I had with Titans, Legion, X-Men, and in fact most of Marvel: the stories never end. It drives me mad that there is rarely a sense of resolution to anything. It's a non-sustainable format in the long term.

enshrining fan theories

If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were specifically referring to the Legion's "Five Years Later" period. Never has a book so completely and utterly committed suicide. It's been over 20 years and the franchise has never recovered from it.

The Omega Men turned up in Green Lantern too (maybe first?), and baffled me there. I think this was when Marv was writing that book, so yeah.

The Robin stuff - you know, I bet there were allusions to this in the Batman book before it was addressed in NTT, and it was taken for granted people would know. Odd bit of early tunnelvision, perhaps?

Didn't Brad Meltzer claim that IDENTITY CRISIS was his "love letter" to the old JLA comics? You know, the book where Sue Dibny was raped on-panel (in flashback!) by Dr. Light and the murderer turned out to be Jean Loring for reasons that made no damn sense for anyone who had read an Atom comic since 1982 (admittedly, not the largest group). That tells me all I need to know about his thought process.

At least Titans did not immediately run out of steam as the Baxter era dawned. When they made that same move with the Outsiders, it crippled the book almost immediately.

Kazekage said...

That was what ultimately made me stop fan-raging about stupid changes made to the characters, but ultimately made me stop caring about them altogether. Even if something is given a suitable resolution, it almost always gets dug up eventually because no one can seem to stop themselves.

I TOTALLY AM! That "Element Lad is gay because of his haircut and here is a story full of torturous logic to prove that point" is the high water mark for me for "OK, I am NOT paying for your fanfic."

I have never totally grasped what the point of them was. I mean no disrespect to their creators, but even the Who's Who entry on the Omega Men put me to sleep.

I'm trying to remember, because I was reading Batman back then, but I don't think so. Even in the early 80's you didn't get a lot of tight co-mingling in the DC universe.

He did! I'd like to think that had he written this love letter to a woman, the wintry taste of mace in his face would be the next thing to happen. And its made even worse because that book set the tone for EVERYTHING DC did afterwards. It is a plague that resists all science.

Well, they had the advantage of having come to a decent resting point for the launch of the Baxter series, plus they had a murder's row of amazing artists on the book for a right good while. All I remember about the Baxter run of the Outsiders is that I remember who the Manhunter agent in the Outsiders was . . .and I never read a single issue. Figured it out from the house ad.

C. Elam said...

The Legion book was top-loaded with that sort of thing. Nine panel grids, obscure allusions to forgotten characters, plot points carried out in torturous text pages. I read it because I happened to pick up the Dusty Abell fill-in with the 1960s Legion and out of curiosity when back to see what I'd missed. I was in a moment in life where I would have desperately loved a great Legion comic, but it just sort of sputtered and died until Zero Hour.

Speaking as you do in the entry of Mike W. Barr, have you ever heard of his beautiful, awful solution to the whole "We need Batman with Robin!" dilemma that was plaguing DC at the time? Dick shows up for a visit, there are a few issues of them teaming up as normal and then, one issue...

Bruce goes to wake up Dick Grayson and he's suddenly 12 years old again. No explanation, just roll with it. Len Wein figured it would get them killed, to say nothing of what Marv would have done. And yet it's still better than how the Jason Todd deal turned out.

I have never really understood the Outsiders Baxter book outside of everyone collectively deciding to shoot themselves in the foot. Besides Titans and Legion being more established with bigger fanbases (at the time, but they'd "fix" that), there was the little matter of THEM KICKING BATMAN OUT OF THE BOOK. Did anyone believe Looker was going to compensate for losing Batman?!? There's also the well-known fact that Jim Aparo could not physically produce enough artwork in a month to fill the Baxter book.

I often get the feeling the Manhunter revelations were something not even the creators knew ahead of the issues they happened.

Kazekage said...

Oh man, did I ever hate the 5 year later legion. I know people hold it up now as a "daring, new" take on the Legion, but it seemed to me to be a wrong-headed self-indulgent mess.

I also found their anti-Wildfire vendetta a little puzzling.

Mike W. Barr's solution is both insane and elegant. I found it hilarious that they had TWO chances to roll out Jason Todd, and both of them were bewilderingly bad, as if no one had thought how to do it right the second time until the day before and they were on the hop.

I have never quite understood how that was going to work, especially as Looker was lampooned mercilessly almost from the moment she arrived. I can't remember why they took Batman out of the book, either. But yeah, it does seem like one long exercise in how greed and stupidity will conspire to murder the golden goose.

I can beleive it. Especially as you always knew the real bad Manhunters were gonna be in the books earmarked for cancellation.

C. Elam said...

I alternated in how I felt about it, but ultimately discovered it drained every ounce of joy out of the Legion concept. I think Keith Giffen is brilliant, but honestly, the man does things I just don't "get" a lot, too. That run was one of the prime reasons we got Zero Hour, which is reason enough to hate it.

I suspect the Wildfire resentment stemmed from how popular he got with the general readership. Forget Storm and Nightcrawler - there was a time when I think Wildfire was the most popular Dave Cockrum creation. That sounds insane today, but in the late 70s, not so much.

I kinda wish it had happened, to tell you the truth. Certainly, comics would be different if it had.

Thing is, I really believe both the Outsiders and Millennium had a lot of potential. How they both flamed out so badly is one of those things that just puzzles me.

Kazekage said...

I was reading someone today who thought it was utterly brilliant, and . . .you know, I don't fault them for ambition, and I understand the mechanical problems Legion had at the time, I just . . .I wish the story was in service to something more interesting.

I also wish we hadn't had a story wherein Element Lad was gay because he had a gay haircut.

I remember one of the later issues actually teased him coming back and . . .it was done in such a way as to be really dickish. That's not to say that he probably couldn't have used a rest, but it seems like every time they've brought him back after, they're trying so hard it alienates one in the other direction as well.

Anything that would have defied continuity to the point of making it utterly un-sacred and impossible to take seriously could only have helped things.

They really did. Even with their problems, I can' hate on Milennium's after-effects too bad, as it gave use this completely insane, wonderful, comic.