Wednesday, June 19, 2013


 We like trilogies, don't we? It seems like a movie isn't considered a success unless it can immediately have a trilogy built around it (whether there's three movies in it or not). Of course, with our love for trilogies comes a certain knowledge that the third part is always a bit crap--I don't know whether it's the fact that once you get all the answers to something they're not as exciting as having all the questions being asked in the first place. Maybe it's just by the third part, things are feeling a little bit laboured or too familiar, or maybe things just feel a bit navel-gazey by this time. Many times we've seen a third installment that seems like it should be strong--all the things that you like in the first two are there--but for some reason, all you can see is the decline and rot setting in.

 I bring this up, because The New Teen Titans Omnibus Vol. 3 is a great example of a third installment that shows both decline and rot. If the first Ominbus showed the book in its first spurt of creative ferment and the second Omnibus showed the book at its creative peak, the third Omnibus shows us a book settling into diminishing returns and decline, a book perfectly happy to cannbalise its own history over and over and ride the horse the long way 'round to the glue factory.

 There are creative reasons for why this is in evidence, and business, reasons, and I've mentioned both before, and as they're actually happening at this point in the title's history, I'll be able to illustrate it as we go.

 We start this Omnibus by going back a bit, and picking up an issue that was excised from its place in the second Omnibus. "Who Is Donna Troy?" is considered one of the best Titans stories (even if it was all soon invalidated) and is quite a striking story in that there's not a single fistfight in the whole thing. It's just as detective story--Robin's trying to untangle Donna Troy's origins (no mean feat, considering even then she was a mistake that ended up being a character. Despite the somewhat overly sentimental tone and the near-toxic levels of Terry Long, it's a very affecting story, and justified, in a sense, that these were characters first and superheroes second, and when that's handled properly, that's just fine.

 The last part of that statement is rather important.

 Anyways, that detour set aside, we return to the book's "present." Tales of the Teen Titans #45-47 features the Titans going up against the H.I.V.E. once and for all (in revenge for the whole Terra thing) Aqualad and Aquagirl guest star, because they were victims of the H.I.V.E.'s vaguely batshit plan to kill everyone in Atlantis for . . .well, we're not sure what reason.Meanwhile, Wally West shows up to fret over things because we haven't quite figured out what to do with him, Changeling's getting all grim and gritty because Terra showed him up, and Raven's turning evil again because  . . .well, more on that in a bit.

 Art this time is by George Perez and Mike DeCarlo (though it's obvious that Perez is only doing breakdowns on this, as a lot of DeCarlo's "sheen" that he gives pencils he works with is in evidence more than Perez's level of detail.) Given what Perez is working on in this time-frame, that he even has this much presence on Tales at this point is pretty impressive.

 Issue #48 is a done-in-one featuring the Titans fighting the RECOMbatants (who are totally not the DNAgents, except they totes are) It's . . .all right, but the big feature this issue is the guest artist--Steve Rude drawing the Titans is something to see, for sure. Issue #49 features the return of Dr. Light and guest pencils by Carmine Infantino, who, thanks to Decarlo's inking, looks a lot less sketchy and shakey compared to how his stuff on Flash looked at the time.

 Tales #50 is a milestone, in more ways than one. For all intents and purposes, this is the end of Tales of the Teen Titans' new material, as there's now enough of a lead time for the "hardcover/softcover" thing to start (more on that in a bit) It's the wedding of Donna Troy and Terry Long and while it's the least romantic wedding I can imagine, George Perez goes all-out on the art side of things and book fully commits itself to its soap-opera side for this long double-size issue. While it definitely feels like a moment long in coming, the overall experience seems a little empty, as Wolfman has never written a convincing reason for why Troy and Long are together (short of having characters lecture at the reader a whole bunch of informed attributes) and if you don't buy into that, the whole thing might seem more than a little self-indulgent.

 So, sic transit The New Teen Titans. After 50 issues, New Teen Titans leaves the newsstand more or less, and the "hardcover/softcover" format is upon us as last. For those who missed the explanation in previous reviews, DC had this idea in the early 80's--take their most popular books at the time (Titans, Legion of Superheroes, The Outsiders) and relaunch them as direct sales only titles, with fancier paper, offset printing, better colour and (most importantly) a higher price. The newsstand issues would then, a year later, reprint the deluxe issues with shitty Flexographic printing that would make any artistic gains utterly muddled and gently punish those plebeians who didn't have comic stories for . . .not having comic stores, which if you remember the early 80's, was most of the country.

 It had one good point, and that point is evident in the next arc we're looking at--it gave artists a bigger canvas to work on and get more elaborate. Whatever the issue with the story, New Teen Titans Vol. 2 #1-5 looks great, with Perez experimenting with un-inked pencils, spot colouring and breaking out of the standard panel borders in expansive and adventurous ways . . .it looks fantastic. So if you had great artists doing great work, the Deluxe format comics were beautiful things (and even though Perez will soon be gone, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Eduardo Barreto are pretty good, as consolation prizes go)

 If you didn't, well, it made shit work look even more awful. Sure, the Flexographic printing made everything even uglier, but set the bar any lower and we'll be in the Earth's mantle.

 Story-wise, it accelerated a process that was going on over in Uncanny X-Men at the time as well--namely, a writer who had stayed on too long was running thin on new directions to take things in and either repeated himself, worked in as many of his own private obsessions as he felt he could get away with, or, in the case of Marv Wolfman, both.

 And this brings us to the story half of  New Teen Titans Vol. 2 #1-5: Oh Dear, Raven's Gone Bad. Again. There's a foreword from Wolfman that prefaces this Omnibus (reprinted from a previous collection) that talks about Raven being a compelling character and all of that, and while I don't dispute she has some uses in the team dynamic . . .she's really NOT that great a character, at least at this point, because Wolfman only seems to have one story he runs featuring her: She gets possessed by Trigon and turns evil. It happened in the original series, it happens here, and it'll happen 100 issues hence in New Titans #100. She's forever turning evil or being possessed or otherwise acting with no agency of her own. The rest of the time she skulks around being remote and trying to discover "what it means to be human" or some Star Trek bullshit like that.

 Raven's inherently passive role is illustrated by the structure of the story: Raven finally loses her shit and turns evil, summoning Trigon and talking like Dark Phoenix for a couple issues. Trigon shows up and bellows that he will enslave the world and etc. etc.  . . .and then takes a nap for two issues (no, really!) while the Titans fight manifestations of their inner evil and self-doubt (not the only time we got to that well . . .not even in this book!) and then the evil Titans show up and kill Raven (and obviously that's gonna stick, right?) then Lilith and Raven's mom put Raven's promise rings back on and she turns into Raven the White and fixes everything and Trigon is killed absolutely for realsies this time.

 I should mention, by the way, that in the first five issues of this book, the Titans utterly fail to notice Raven's been going nutty for at least a year of continuity, immediately get sidelined by her initial attacks, turn evil and murder Raven, and then can't even kill Trigon and win the day in their own book.


 This would, it seems to me, be a red flag of some sort, and that portraying your team of superheroes as screw-ups who fail to pull together at the critical moment and mope about it the rest of the time is not the sort of thing that long-running books are made of. Mind you, the Titans had made mistakes before and suffered reversals born of their own oversights and arrogance, but had previous to this, always pulled together at the critical time and been heroic.

 Not anymore, not in this book, anyways. There starts to emerge a persistent thread of failure and obsession with failure that really starts to strangle the book. Most of the rest of the stories in this book concern Nightwing constantly grappling with his relationship with Batman and his attempts to become his own man (even though he'd kinda already done that, he has to do it eight or nine more times for it to stick, I guess?) It becomes a real problem and one that sets the book on a course of navel-gazing and spinning its wheels that becomes so pervasive that the whole books becomes this oppressive culture of failure (really, the same thing happened with Claremont's X-Men, it's just happening faster here) that got so bad, for the last 25 issues leading up to #100, they tried damn near everything to scour the Earth and get back to their roots.

 But we can't deal with that now. After a "catch our breath" issue in the wake of the Trigon attack, we skip ahead (four whole years and a title change to New Titans) to Issue #50, which is Ground Zero for why Donna Troy was (and possibly still is) such a continuity nightmare for "Who is Wonder Girl?" a four-part epic that is not really all that epic and replaces a rather elegant solution to a continuity problem with enough nightmarishly intricate gobbledegook that it could almost be, say, Cable's origin.

 It's also about the time Danny Chase showed up. I talked about Danny Chase back when I wrote up Games. The short version for those of you who missed it--bad as Terry Long was, he's nowhere near the utter shit that Danny Chase was--a pet character that was portrayed as being relentlessly unlikeable and obnoxious and was pushed down everyone's throats. I would say Danny Chase has X-Pac Heat, but it's more accurate to say that he IS X-Pac Heat, incarnate: Just seeing him makes you wish he would go away forever.

 Anyways, to the extent that any of this makes any damn sense at all, let's see if I can make this at all coherent: Donny Troy is a child of the Titans of Myth (who are good guys now, I guess?) who decamped to outer space and raised aliens to be New Gods (but not those New Gods) only one of the godlings has gone crazy so now Donny Troy (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the Titans) must go and save them, except they leave Danny Chase behind, ostensibly to protect him, but more, I think because they can't stand him either.

 So they faff off to outer space and fight aliens and it goes about as well as you'd expect, in that the Titans get the crap kicked out of them pretty consistently and things get worse because it's just that sort of book, innit? Eventually Donna and the rest of the godlings kill the mad godling (it is nice that the main character of the story gets to have some of her own agency, I will say that, even if you don't really give a crap who the rest of the godlings are because they pop up out of nowhere and never show up again) and everything's OK and Donna has a brand new origin that people will immediately begin to ignore and snarl up even moreso.

 This is a lead-in to the next issue, where Donna Troy debuts her Troia look and . . .well, not unlike her new origin (now with 100% more space aliens and confusion) people begin trying to tweak the costume almost immediately, possibly because the damn thing looks very hard to draw correctly. Meanwhile, in Subplot Theatre, Danny Chase tells Nightwing that Jason Todd's been killed with all the taste and conscientiousness you would expect from young master Chase. Nightwing almost beats the crap out of him and throws him out of the Titans (though he still sticks around because Marv Wolfman will MAKE YOU LIKE HIM if it's the last thing he does.) Nightwing goes to commiserate with Batman about Jason dying and Batman punches him in the face because Batman just rolls like that.

 The book gets slightly flabby and shapeless after that, as issue #56 tells the thrilling tale of Gnarrk post-Crisis, and if you're first response was "wait, who?" the answers are "exactly," and "congratulations, you're not crazy?" I would spend more time on this and Lilith's weird mental sex-thing with him, but it's 2013 and neither you nor I should be spending the brief, precious time we have on this planet thinking about stupid fucking Gnarrk.

 Issue #57 features the return of the Wildebeest, perhaps the most frightening of his breed since Gary Gnu. Wildebeest is interesting because initially they did a good job of working around the whole "a cool costume with no one in it" idea because the Wildebeest was always a different guy each time. This time, the Wildebeest is Cyborg, who's been sidelined since they went to outer-space and is being mind-controlled (again, by some weird sex thing! Man, does Claremont know they're biting on all his shit?)

 Also, Jericho's mighty blonde Afro is now an afro-mullet thing. Also he's polyamouous. Wolfman really wanted to sell that as an example of Titan's progressive sexual politics, because dammit, if anyone's going to lead the vanguard of open sexual lifestyles, or, indeed, progressiveness of any kind, well it DAMN WELL BETTER be corporate superhero comics, right? 

 Meanwhile, Danny Chase does stupid shit no one cares about.

 The stuff with the Wildebeest and Cyborg's crazy dreams of electric sex grind on until #59, where, after nearly killing the team and being mind controlled and now bed-ridden, Nightwing makes him leader of the Titans because Nightwing used to be a born leader who made careful decisions, but hes got to nip over to Batman for a few months for a crossover and just can't be hassled with this crap because hey, people actually read Batman.

 But hey, this is about the time Tom Grummet starts working on the book, and he's pretty good--not Perez like, but his fine sense of detail serves him in good stead on this book.

 The Batman crossover "A Lonely Place of Dying," lasted 6 parts and went through both Batman and New Titans. Only the two parts, both of them the New Titans portions, are reprinted here, to annoy you and generally make things needlessly baroque and complicated. It's all rather pointless, as none of the Titans really have much to do with any of it and it's pretty much Nightwing going solo for a bit and fretting about where he is in relation to Batman, then teaming up with Batman and being there when Tim Drake hits the scene. It didn't really need to be six parts, as "Batman turns into a grumpy asshole without a Robin to function a stablising influence" is not really a thing which needs to be drawn out very long to make that point (that said, they've been doing great in making it seem longer and more interminable when they revisit it later) and . ..yeah. "Titans Hunt" could only have helped this book.

 Rather than provide any attempt at closure, we detour to Secret Origins Annual #3, which ostensibly features the post-Crisis origin of the Titans, but what it actually features is Nightwing having bad dreams about how bad he thinks he sucks. I kinda wish that was just me exaggerating for comic effect, but unfortunately, I'm not. 

 We end with neither a bang, nor a whimper, but a "wahaa--?" with New Titans #66 and 67, featuring Raven falling in love with a robot, more or less. If this seems strangely familiar to you, it's because they've done this story before, only it's usually Starfire who ends up dating someone who's evil/a a robot/doomed/all three. It is completely bewildering and serves no purpose--Raven still doesn't have much of a character and her only contact is Jericho, who can't talk, so the whole thing feels a bit empty, really.

 And with that, we're done. The Wolfman/Perez era of New Teen Titans is well and truly done, and this is the story of how it ended. Perhaps had Perez stuck around longer (no sooner was he working on the relaunched book than he was working on Crisis on Infinite Earths, then Wonder Woman) there would have been more of a balance, because as Wolfman, as with Claremont on the other big book had more leeway to follow his interests, the book become more insular and more broken and just plain duller. I can't imagine DC squeezing another Omnibus out of this run, as by this time, Perez is pretty much long gone and while Titans Hunt would be interesting to read again in a more or less complete form, it's not really part of this era and it's kind of a clusterfuck (three or four crossovers break out in the middle of it) and doesn't really succeed in its remit to revitsalise the book in a long-term sort of way.

 So the trilogy ends in the way a lot of trilogies (and long-running superhero comics that have seen better days) seem to end. Not with any sense of finality or closure, but merely a shrug and a slow slide into complacency.

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