Plastic or fantastic

I’d like to learn more about the ~1980 transfer of personnel from Marvel to DC, many of them returning. The one thing I’m certain of is that the breakout hit which put DC back on the map, The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, could only have been produced by people who’d thrown everything they had into mid-late 70s Marvel and formed very definite notions there. [Also – a moment here to acknowledge inker-and-finisher Romeo Tanghal, the guy who actually had to give us all the doohickeys on Cyborg’s outfit and the glowies on that golden lasso … I imagine he’s in a nice home now, poor fellow … just kidding, but man, that was some serious labor.]

What was “DC” at this moment anyway? It’s before the Brits arrived, before The Dark Knight Returns, before Crisis on Infinite Earths. Its only real asset was the recent landmark movie hit with Superman. There was no “universe,”and no editorial management of content at all. You had a variety of franchises each with its own diversity of generational interpretations, and a bunch of quirky little islands: the JLA, Superfriends (not to be discounted), the Legion, the New Gods, the stand-out intensity of the early 70s Batman and Green Arrow, the Doom Patrol, the Fawcett characters, soon the Charlton characters too. The content was much like what Roy Thomas must have seen around 1967, looking back over the unused 1940s and 1950s holdings of Goodman Publications. But under a much more ROI-inclined, oversight-heavy, better-connected to visual media, and campaign-oriented management.

I can imagine, for instance, Marv Wolfman looking it over and saying, “Shit, we can get this mess together and sell it as a Thing,” such that The New Teen Titans was more than just a new supergroup title, it was a redefinition of everything that it touched, including its reference to other characters. It wrote about relationships among the disconnected DC characters as if those relationships already existed, and as if people already cared. It was the nucleus of a new principle, that now we can write ongoing stories here with characters you can follow from book to book. If the rival company had rocketed to apparent “dominance” via Make Mine Marvel, well, DC would counter with Make Mine Marvel Too.

By saying that Batman and Robin had a beef of some kind, it established the beef as something that mattered.

It’s the college dorm book. They’re separated from their parent figures, they have ostensibly different identities and varying values (especially about sex), they are mostly all the same underneath, they’re thrown together for reasons which seem sound and inevitable but are not precisely clear or trustworthy, they have to live together in some strange designated building, the adult world doesn’t really consider them responsible, and they have to “be a team.”

So, we’re supposed to be best friends now, right …? Or …?

Some will thrive, meaning, find a functioning identity different from their parents’, and some will succumb, meaning, not manage to break away and melting down.

To some – I’m thinking specifically of Jones & Jacobs’ The Comic Book Heroes – this was the X-Men done right, and I can see why. In the long run, even by 1980-81, X-Men as a plot or character study could only be described as hysterical. Sameness aside, what Titans definitely did not do was flipflop and wander and get obsessed with the latest trivia. The characters may have been neurotic but they stayed comfortably in their assigned diagnoses instead of suddenly changing directions as if they’d been demonically possessed. In a way, it was what Shooter kept trying to establish at Marvel and kept not getting. Each plot was introduced, developed issue by issue, and resolved. You had your shadowy figure + hints; reveal of who; reveal of why; all as the “plot” thickens and then it’s a thumping fight. Keep enough of these going in layers and the readers will love it unconditionally. You knew exactly what was going on, and what happened last issue was always picked up in the next.

Bad Ron rips free and snarls: As long as you don’t mind that what was going on was banal to the point of shrieking – the depth of Barbie dolls, immense reliance on mind control and misunderstandings, and when in doubt, idiot plotting —

OK, OK, solid head-shake, let’s stay positive. I just re-read the first couple years’ issues, and the almost entirely absurd origin team-up moment aside, it started a lot stronger than I remembered. Robin is written to be unequivocally competent. Both Cyborg and Raven start with some resonance and their dad-stories are credibly moving and semi-scary, respectively. I can deal with Changeling as long as I simply disconnect the whole thing from the original Doom Patrol. I thought the campfire heart-to-heart sequence was well-timed and justified. It’s simple but it’s also solid.

But then … see, all right, take Cyborg. First there’s the economic thing – the comic says outright that “most of the Titans are well-off,” and bear in mind his parents are top-flight research scientists which in comics means wealthy, but he inexplicably lives in grim and poverty-stricken “bad New York” because (um) that’s what black people do. I guess. But never mind that; my real interest is how he has to carry multiple character concepts on his one pair of shoulders. Is he the anti-intellectual jock as he cast himself as he grew up; or the nerdy scientist kid who only acts bad-ass street, as it seems to go in the first year (and is a really good concept, pretty much Ben Grimm); or is he ipso facto streetwise and gang-tough just because he’s black (which is pretty much where they go with it); is he the most mature of the bunch (actually justified in a couple of issues) or the most unpredictably angry and incidentally useless … it’s too much to work with and it all kind of blends into, if you’ll excuse the expression, mocha.

All the politics in the book are like that. Whether it’s brief conservative-vs.-liberal rhetoric among the team, or Soviet heroes being uncommunicative and tragic, or crazy-Ay-rab terrrorists, or whatever on earth was supposed to be going on with the runaways … it has a TV special, calm/middle center for the reader to adopt comfortably, which never admits to genuinely opposing views and never shifts.

Bad Ron could be really nasty about the later interminable stories concerning Terra/Tara and Raven, especially since the whole parents can be really bad theme is thoroughly delivered by the first year’s end. But most comics suffer from fatigue and if I forgive the ones I like most, it’s not fair to crank about others. My concern is this mocha thing that runs throughout … everything.

I am a total sucker for these two. And they were right, too, why bother fighting Titans?

I think I just remembered something I had to do.

Especially, the villains. I can’t even count how many good starts there were – Mammoth and Shimmer, Phobia, Psimon … and yet each spun into triviality. The book just could not seem to get a handle on what villains were “about” – they were either on the quirky-to-insane spectrum, or cosmically obsessive, usually literally. Not a one of them had a credible perspective on anything, with Brother Blood as both perfect and yet perfectly bland version of No one joins a cult. I was always underwhelmed by Deathstroke the Terminator (possibly because I started with Perez’s Taskmaster a few years earlier), but I also know I’m in the small minority on that one. Never mind Raven’s stupid parents, both of whom are completely crazy and completely uninteresting. I wanted more Phobia – how can you name a villainness that, and see Perez draw her like that, and not go to town with it?

Villains are always the key to a comic’s authenticity about the real world, and their curious emptiness expands to all aspects of the title. Oddly for a “teen” book, it was deeply lacking in the Swing. The romances were all present but also tepid; “love” seemed like a common cold you caught and sort of suffered from. Interestingly, although I don’t like the Zionist politics of the New X-Men, the book had politics, and with that plus the in-your-face lust and love firing off constantly, from 1977 through maybe 1985, Claremont gave it Swing to burn. Its plotting was frenetic and forgetful, but I found it simply more fun to read than the Titans, whose professional and reliable nature begin to look sterile to me after only a few issues, let alone fifty. Bad Ron even gets grumpy about the art and starts talking about Gil Kane and direction-of-motion lines.

I hope you see my point, that we are talking about whether this title is fantastic or mere plastic. I can articulate the latter better because Bad Ron is probably the real me, but I see both. How about you?

Next: A pretty butterfly

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on March 3, 2016, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I definitely fall into the fantastic camp but I do see your plastic points too. Still this was definitely what DC needed to revitalize their line so I give it props there. And Perez’s art was amazing. It definitely lost its way later with occasional periods of brilliance again. I stuck with it through the end and there was some painful stuff from Marv there.

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    • Thing is, I’m trying to focus on the limitations, or limited context, for the good things about the title. It’s not about smacking the less-good or bad.

      That was my whole point about Cyborg – potshotting the problematics (current word for it) 35 years later is cheap, the issue is more interesting than that. More generally, there are topical politics in the stories, but they’re merely referenced, Robin says “forget politics!” (direct quote), and the story doesn’t take a stand.

      A lot of the posts here and at G+ seem to think “pick on the bad = plastic side,” “extoll the art = fantastic side,” and it’s irking me. I don’t want to talk about the bad, I want to discuss whether the good/fantastic is itself plastic.

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  2. The New Teen Titans was, I think, the first DC Superhero book that I started following after I started buying original comics directly from the USA in the 80s (I brought Swamp Thing before but that was it’s own thing). I was attracted by the “buzz” in fandom, by Perez’s name and by the covers (that were frankly gorgeous a lot of times).
    I started by the end of the “Terra” storyline, not knowing who these characters were (apart from Robin), and right in the middle of the climax of a long storyline with a group member shown as a traitor. I was hooked! I loved these first books!
    Less than a couple of years later, I dropped the book, realizing that reading it was a chore. Perez leaving was the last straw, but the problem were the stories: they did not grab me at all. Even the Terra storyline, I realized after finding the back issues, was greatly enhanced by my arriving right at the big-bang end, without having to slog trough the previous issues. They were… bland, with no “bite” at all.
    So, I would say that I agree with bad Ron this time…

    (wait, does this mean that there is “Good Ron” somewhere? Where do you keep him hidden?)

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    • I confess I was surprised by the charm, this time around. I had encountered the title in the mid-late 1980s as I’ve written about many times – the monstrous pile dating from when I’d left off superheroes, sometime in 1978. The TT run must have begun … about the time of Terra’s first brief appearance, I guess, and it ran all the way up through her story and through the Trigon showdown. Over the years my memory of them didn’t gain any luster, so I was not too sure about re-reading them. But that first year and a half – although it really really has this mocha quality – shows a lot of skill and more subtle characterizations than the later stuff. I think that those disappear decisively at about that “here’s Terra, who’s Terra” point, and I read well enough past that to be sure, so I’m not too motivated to keep going into that, at least not immediately. it’s the curious mix of “wow they’re doing it right” and “bland! bland!” during the early phase that interests me.

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  3. I liked Teen Titans but by the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was a real pain in the ass to figure out where to start. There were reprints in Tales of the Teen Titans which I believe I could get in the local 7-11 and 5 and dime stories and then Teen Titans which I could only find in comic book stories.

    Treasure hunting was part of the fun but no matter how far I pedaled my back, I had trouble tracking down an entire storyline. I remember being able to track down 2 or 3 issues of the arc with Trigon taking over the world and making the Titans fight their evil selves and enjoying the post-fight issue, where they all talked about confronting their own fears through Trigon.

    Good times…

    Zionist X-Men – I’d read more about that…

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    • COMPLETE TANGENT, SORRY, WELCOME TO DELETE

      For whatever it’s worth, a month ago I read through X-Men 94-200–basically, the famous stuff Claremont did, because I’d never read it. While there are definitely references to the Holocaust, I have a hard time seeing the series as doing a whole lot with it at that time, and certainly nothing that I’d describe as Zionism.

      Yes: there is a deservedly famous story about the genocide of the mutants, but it’s over in 2 issues. Yes: their arch-enemy explicitly uses the Holocaust as justification for waging a preventive war, but Magneto shows up for maybe 3 plots out of those 100 issues; granted a few of those plots are multi-issue battles.

      But during that 106 issue run, there’s no sustained theme or plotline. Arcade – fucking ARCADE – shows up about as often as Magneto does. (“And Moses said unto the LORD, ‘What shall become of Egypt which has held thy people in bondage?’ And the LORD saith, ‘Lo, it shall become a Murderworld in mine sight.'”) Same for the Morlocks, and the Hellfire Club. And jeez, the Shi’ar Empire stuff takes up an enormous amount of issues, which given the Star Wars franchises and the Alien film isn’t too much of a surprise. And you also have random shit like a Sword & Sorcery Wizard taking over New York, etc.

      To the extent there’s any thematic continuity at all from ’77 to ’85, I’d agree that the Magneto/Mutant Holocaust stuff supplies it, but it’s a very thin thread. I think our spotting it in hindsight is mainly the result of a priming effect: certain writers and editors cherry-picking storylines, and then the movies which are admirably focused, cause us to see it in hindsight.

      After issue 200–the Trial of Magneto issue–things become really jumbled. The mutant-hatred stuff is a background context for roughly two years, but from 201-240 the real plotline is showing that Cyclops was right to leave his wife. They never really did anything with the bigotry angle, or even with resolving the Mutant Massacre.

      Even so, the stance of the X-Men themselves may be essentialist–“Hey, we’re a legitimate minority and supposedly at risk somehow”–but it’s never supremacist: Magneto is always wrong. It’s that supremacy angle that I see as the core of late-20th C. Zionism.

      God I am wasting my life writing this stuff.

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  4. Tough for me to get back into my head at that point in time… I think in comparison to other books I had access to at the time, it was great. i was definitely seduced by the artwork, and I was probably thrilled at the time by any sort of “mature” content (like the heavily-implied sexual relationship between Terra and the Terminator).

    And wow, but Wonder Girl’s boyfriend was creepity-creep-creep-creep.

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    • Yeah. On the face of it, Wonder Girl is the “big kid” of the bunch, so dating an older guy is perfectly in-character for that role. And hey, it’s not like some contact with one! single! sane adult would have hurt the book. But … then he turns out to be this needy type, all dissatisfied and sort of threatened by her, so, sure enough, “adults are totally fucked up” kicks in again.

      I’m not really objecting to that theme and if it works for the overall title, well and good. I figure after resolving the Olympian/Titan clash, as in, the real actual mythological one, though, they deserve at least one person over 25 who’s not a psycho.

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  5. oberonthefool

    Man, I really, really want to tell you to watch Young Justice, but I know that’ll just make you dig yout heels in, so I won’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The mid-2000’s Teen Titans cartoon was pretty effing fun, and a welcome alternative to the lumbering remnants of the Timm-verse.

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