This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America #20, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham, Nathan Massengill, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • The New Teen Titans Archives vol 4 HC, by Marv Wolfman, George Pérez & Romeo Tanghal (DC)
  • Terra #1 of 4, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amada Conner (DC)
  • Top Ten Season Two #2 of 5, by Zander Cannon & Gene Ha (DC/America’s Best)
  • Gigantic #1 of 5, by Rick Remender & Eric Nguyen (Dark Horse)
The New Teen Titans Archives vol. 4 When compiling a list of the most significant books during the bronze age of comics (roughly 1970-1990), Marv Wolfman & George Pérez’s New Teen Titans would certainly make the top ten, a little bit behind Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men. The two books (and rumor is that Titans was intended to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s X-Men) brought stronger characterization and soap opera elements to mainstream superhero comics, essentially taking what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had done at Marvel in the 60s to a higher level of sophistication. As such, both series are worth reading for their historical import, but also because they both hold up pretty well today.

This week DC released the fourth volume of the Titans Archives, covering issues #21-27, which is roughly the midpoint of the Wolfman/Pérez run (Pérez left the series after #47, although he returned occasionally thereafter, but the book wasn’t the same without him). What really makes the series work is that it’s about a group of former teenage sidekicks who are growing up; rather than being 11 or 12, they’re now 19 or 20 and are coming into their own. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: The original Robin was only going to become a man once, Kid Flash was only going to figure out how to come out of the shadow of his mentor once. Into this mix they dropped three brand-new characters from significantly different backgrounds and forged a team out of them.

This particular volume is something of a mixed bag: The first story involves the cult leader Brother Blood, who I never felt really worked as a villain due to being just too heavy-handed. The third story was notable for dealing with teenage runaways and the underworld they can often fall into. It does a pretty good job of both surveying many different characters’ fates with a central story holding it together, but again it feels a little too heavy-handed. But it was cutting-edge at the time, the sorts of issues (drugs, prostitution, minors getting involved with the mob) which had previously been verboten in comics. It’s the middle story which really shines, the longest story since the 6-issue one which launched the series: The alien Starfire’s evil sister comes to Earth and kidnaps her, and the Titans chase after her and get involved in the ongoing civil war in her home solar system. It’s satisfying as a science fiction adventure, but it also cements Robin and Starfire’s growing romantic relationship, while providing insight into her background. It’s still a fun read even today, at least as long as you ignore the political situation of the Vega system, which mostly makes little sense.

This was the point where George Pérez was making his transition from a Jack Kirby imitator to become George Pérez, with his outstanding sense of anatomy, unusually wide range of character faces, and detailed costumes and backgrounds. The changes occur almost before your eyes, and he’s now only about a year away from becoming the artist we know today, but he’s not quite there yet, and Romeo Tanghal’s inks – although they’d benefit nearly any other artist working at the time – are starting to feel not quite subtle enough to bring out the best in the pencils.

All-in-all, it’s a fine package, but the best was yet to come. Hopefully DC will keep going with these collections so we can get the whole run in hardcover.

Terra #1 Speaking of the Teen Titans, the volume above featured the first appearance of Terra, a Wolfman creation who was the pivotal character in the climactic story arc of his run with Pérez. Since then, as ComicVine’s entry on her says, she’s “probably one of the most retconned characters in the [DC Universe]”. She’s back this month, in a mini-series with yet another take on the character: This Terra is a cipher with the ability to telekinetically move the dirt and rock who protects the inhabitants below the Earth’s surface from intrusions from above – and vice-versa. In this first issue she gets in a little too deep and is rescued by Power Girl, who brings her to Doctor Mid-Nite who makes a surprising discovery about her identity. It’s a promising start, so we’ll see how it plays out.

It’s rare to see a female artist make it in mainstream superhero comics, so I’m always secretly rooting for them to hit it big, since I think it couldn’t help but be good for the industry. Unfortunately, it seems like there are only a few who make even a small impact in any decade: In the 80s there was Mary Wilshire and June Brigman, and in the 90s there was Jill Thompson.

In this decade we have Amanda Conner, who might be best known for drawing the sardonic graphic novel The Pro, and the Power Girl story in JSA Classified a few years ago. Terra may well end up being better than either of those. Conner’s strength is in facial expressions; she regularly composes pages with a series of panels from the same perspective which vary mainly in body language and expression, and they’re often the most memorable scenes in the issue. There are two such pages at the end of this issue. With the slightly cartoony edge to her style, reading this issue feels a little like reading a webcomic, yet it has a friendliness which sets it apart from the doom-and-gloom hyper-realism of many comics at DC these days.

The rest of this one ought to be fun.

The Problem with Endless Titans Revivals

The Titans vol 2 #1Like Valerie D’Orazio, I decided to pass on Titans #1. (Rachelle Goguen and others weren’t so lucky, apparently.)

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.

The New Teen Titans vol 1 #1So then, in The New Teen Titans we have four established heroes who actually do break free of their mentors and establish themselves as adults:

  1. Robin becomes Batman’s equal and adopts his own identity as Nightwing.
  2. Wonder Girl establishes a career and gets married
  3. Kid Flash decides he doesn’t want to be a superhero anymore and leaves the team.
  4. 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/P̩rez run РStarfire, Cyborg, Raven and Terra Рare 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.)

Comics I Bought After They Jumped The Shark

Greg Burgas writes about comics he bought after they jumped the shark. (Everyone here knows what jumping the shark means, right?) Rarely one to miss a chance to beat a few dead horses, I figured I’d write my own entry.

I grew up reading comic books, and by the early 1980s was buying a large number of titles, but four of them formed the core of my buying habits. All four of these jumped the shark in the 80s, but it took me a while to realize it and to stop buying them. Here they are:

  • The Uncanny X-Men:
    • My first issue: #126 (1979)
    • When it jumped the shark: #201 (1986)
    • My last issue: #229 (1988)

    I count myself pretty lucky to have started reading this just as Chris Claremont and John Byrne were hitting the best part of their run. After all, their run is my pick for the most influential comics series since Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four, so I’m very happy I got into it when I did. Byrne left after #143, and Claremont’s scripts got increasingly byzantine; eventually, it was a common joke that many storylines in X-Men never actually completed.

    That said, the comic was actually quite readable – if uneven – for several years following Byrne (with Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith illustrating), culminating in #175 (1983), in which Cyclops – always the series’ main character, for my money – marries Madeline Pryor and gets his happy ending (and they even get their own spotlight issue in which they head off on their honeymoon).

    At this point John Romita Jr. took over as penciller. Romita has always been a decent nuts-and-bolts layout man, but his designs and faces have always seemed uninspired to me, and Dan Green’s inks were especially unsympathetic. The book went off into la-la land in #201 (1986), when – for marketing reasons – Cyclops returned to duel Storm for leadership of the X-Men, and lost. What? By the time I picked up my last issue the even-less-inspiring-than-Romita Marc Silvestri was drawing the book, and I realized that not only did I not have any idea what had happened in the book for the past year, I no longer cared.

    I’ve rarely ever checked in on Marvel’s merry mutants since then. There’s really been no point, since the series for all intents and purposes reached its dramatic conclusion decades ago.

    A lot of people started reading X-Men during Jim Lee’s run in the early 1990s, and I sometimes take delight in telling them that I’d given up on the series long before they read their first issue. 🙂

  • The New Teen Titans:

    This was DC’s ground-breaking series of the 1980s, making superstars out of Marv Wolfman and George Perez. While there’s some truth to the notion that it was intended as a knock-off of (or competition for) the X-Men, it quickly found its own voice with a completely different set of characters. For 50 issues of the first series it was absolutely outstanding. As DC’s best-selling title it was relaunched in 1984 using higher-quality paper.

    But Perez left following vol. 2 #5 (1985), and the series was never the same after that. Wolfman was struck by a lengthy bout with writer’s block, and the stories dragged on and often didn’t make much sense. Even when Perez returned with #50 (1988) for a few issues, the magic was gone. The last issue I bought was part of an ill-advised Batman crossover. I’ve come back for the occasional Titans story since then, but none of them have been anywhere near as good as Wolfman and Perez.

  • The Avengers:
    • My first issue: vol. 1 #179 (1979)
    • When it jumped the shark: #239 (1984)
    • My last issue: #306 (1989)

    This is the only one of these four series where I got on board after the series’ heyday. Really, its first heyday was in the late 60s under Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Neal Adams, but it had a couple of nifty runs in the 70s, first written by Steve Englehart, and later by Jim Shooter. My first issue was just after the Shooter run, and although it was a fun period – with art by John Byrne and then George Perez – I learned years later that the earlier stuff really was better.

    Shooter returned for a controversial run in which one of the heroes has a breakdown and goes to prison. A lot of people hated that run, but I thought it was okay. No, it was really when Roger Stern came on board as writer that the series lost me. To be fair, he was hobbled for a while by the mediocre art of Al Milgrom and Joe Sinnott, but even though I’ve loved most everything else I’ve read by Stern, his Avengers run just never clicked for me. I think the series reached its nadir when the team appeared on Letterman.

    After this, Buscema and Tom Palmer took over the art chores again, and it was a very pretty book, but the series lost many of its stars and the second-stringers who came on board just didn’t interest me. It seemed like the series became one long soap opera with rather uninteresting characters. I can’t honestly say I remember exactly which issue was my last, but I know the overhaul in #300 (by which time I think Stern had already departed) killed whatever interest I’d had left.

    The book got amazingly worse throughout the 90s, but after Marvel’s “Heroes Return” relaunch it experienced a new golden age for nearly 5 years under Kurt Busiek and George Perez.

  • The Legion of Super-Heroes:

    I started reading LSH at the tail end of their second golden age, as #223-224 were Jim Shooter and Mike Grell’s last issues. But, things didn’t go downhill from there, as they were followed by Paul Levitz and Jim Sherman, who produced several great stories. They took over the title from Superboy with #259 and went into something of a tailspin, but actually there was a bunch of fun stuff during this not-much-heralded era (I enjoyed the Reflecto storyline, for instance). Levitz came back a few years later and began his well-known and lengthy run on the title, first with Pat Broderick, and then with Keith Giffen.

    I didn’t care for it.

    Giffen’s art was inventive, but his characters’ postures and faces were very stiff. Levitz turned many of the characters on their heads and although it became a more plausible science fiction superhero title, the spirit of the book seemed to have vanished. But the book truly jumped the shark after it, like The New Teen Titans, was relaunched as a higher-quality-paper series, which started with a 5-part story which culminated in one of my favorite Legionnaires, Karate Kid, being killed off for really no good reason and to no good effect (since his wife, Projectra, largely disappeared from the book at the same time, thus destroying any character drama the death might have had).

    I kept reading the book for years afterwards, and it had a few enjoyable periods, but was never really good again. The series got re-envisioned, then rebooted, and it was again somewhat entertaining for a while, but the magic was long gone at this point. Again, I’m not sure exactly when I stopped reading, but the issue above is my best guess.

    On the bright side, the Legion has been relaunched at least twice since then, and has been fairly entertaining for long stretches. The current series by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson is fun, actually.

Since the 80s I’ve generally been more severe about dropping comics that aren’t doing it for me anymore, mainly because I finally had the revelation that it’s the creators, not the characters, that make a book worth reading. And really, there isn’t enough time to spend reading comics that you just aren’t enjoying. No doubt this is a big reason why I still read comics, after 30+ years.

(By the way, in writing this I was pleased to discover The Big Comic Book Database. Its content is still pretty raw, but the issue lists and covers alone make it a pretty valuable resource.)