To me, though, the interesting matter isn’t whether the book sucked or not, or why DC keeps bothering trying to revive the title so often (trademarks, if nothing else). After all, the beloved (and deservedly so) New Teen Titans from the early 1980s was itself the third attempt to do something with the Teen Titans property. So why did it succeed so brilliantly, and why have other attempts failed so badly?
It wasn’t all Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, was it?
I think what Wolfman and Pérez tapped into with New Teen Titans was not just a good mix of characters, it was a mix of characters all of whom were at a major point of transition in their lives. The first two attempts at a Teen Titans comic book featured characters who were teenagers and who were essentially stuck as teenagers: They were in the shadows of their mentors, and essentially unable to break free of them because, well, they were teenagers, and continued to be teenagers for quite a few years. In “real world” terms, it was because the characters weren’t really allowed by DC editorial to age until the 1970s, and it took Wolfman and Pérez – creators of enough stature that they could pretty much do whatever they wanted with the characters – to take them into adulthood.
- Robin becomes Batman’s equal and adopts his own identity as Nightwing.
- Wonder Girl establishes a career and gets married
- Kid Flash decides he doesn’t want to be a superhero anymore and leaves the team.
- Beast Boy takes on the name Changeling and has a difficult transition to adulthood as “the rich green geek”.
The other four major Titans of the Wolfman/Pérez run – Starfire, Cyborg, Raven and Terra – are new characters, but are all going through their own phases of maturation, and they play off of the four established characters, making for a dynamic set of personalities who happen to be at a complicated stage of their lives. Result: Drama and character development, even without the superhero action-adventure.
The Titans revivals since then have generally featured the same characters as adults, often with new characters mixed in, but have been far less successful by any yardstick. And the reason for that, I believe, is that you just can’t take established characters – especially iconic ones – through the life-altering transition to adulthood twice. You can unmarry Wonder Girl, rename her Troia, change her costume, or whatever (and DC has done all of that and more), but she’s an adult now, and even if her life is pretty screwed up, the stories you tell about her are going to be fundamentally different than those Wolfman and Pérez were able to tell.
The lesson to be learned here is that it’s not necessarily putting together the right mix of characters which makes the book work. It’s what you do with those characters that matters, not just sending them off on adventures, but illuminating them and changing and growing (or even diminishing) them in some way. The Titans books since the Wolfman/Pérez days may have been rollicking superhero action yarns (I’ve read a few of them and haven’t generally found them to be awful, just kinda… there), but they didn’t have that underlying sense of lives transforming because that’s the way life is which marked The New Teen Titans. (And, to be sure, once that title finishing bringing its characters to adulthood, it slid into mediocrity pretty quickly.)
We should be glad to have had the Wolfman/Pérez Titans, because they absolutely nailed what the book should have been, and produced one of the great superhero comics as a result. (And we should give them props for being great creators who had the skill to recognize how to deliver on the series’ potential.) But also because there’s never again going to be a Teen Titans series with those characters which works the same way. And it’s not entirely clear what the point of the Titans is, without that element of growing up driving it.
(Incidentally, Kid Flash was fortunate enough to be involved in another such coming-of-age storyline; after he left the Titans, he followed in his uncle’s footsteps to become the Flash, and after years of just sorta being there, Mark Waid had him make the mantle of the Flash his own in The Return of Barry Allen, which was one of the great superhero stories of the 1990s. So you can take a hero through this sort of transformative experience twice. But as in real life, it’s not the sort of thing that happens every month! Do it well, though, and you’ve produced something special.)