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Li’l League

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest.

As we’ve discussed in these pages previously, the hottest thing going at DC Comics in the early 1960s was JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. So hot, in fact, that a request to ape its success led to the creation of THE FANTASTIC FOUR by Lee and Kirby, which would in turn pave the way for the rest of Marvel Comics’ wildly successful titles. But it wasn’t just Marvel looking to capitalize on the JLA’s newfound popularity. Within DC itself, higher-ups were searching for a way to make lightning strike twice. Someone there had the “well, duh” type of idea that seems painfully obvious in retrospect, but until then was just waiting to be utilized:

“Hey, most of these JUSTICE LEAGUE guys have kid sidekicks, right? Why don’t we team them up?”

The sidekick team theory was first tested out in the July 1964 issue of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, one of DC’s anthology series. (Although, to be fair, Timely Comics had tried the idea out to some success in the 1940s as the “Young Allies,” teaming up Captain America’s kid partner Bucky Barnes with the Human Torch’s sidekick Toro, along with a few other young non-costumed hooligans, in the series YOUNG ALLIES COMICS. The series was written by a young Stan Lee, which may explain his later distaste for the very idea of the “boy sidekick.”) BOTB #54 featured the first meeting of Robin the Boy Wonder (from the long-running BATMAN comics), Aqualad (a perennial favorite in DC’s AQUAMAN) and Kid Flash (from DC’s then-smash hit FLASH) as they faced off against a supervillain so cheesy he had two really stupid names: Mr. Twister, a.k.a. Brom Stikk.

In the story, written by Bob Haney with art by the often overlooked draftsman Bruno Premiani, the three teen heroes converge on the small town of Hatton Corners after hearing the news of the worsening squabble between the community’s adults and teenagers, centering around the necessity for a “teen clubhouse” for the local kids to hang out in.

When the evil Mr. Stikk shows up to threaten the town with his feathery cape and magic stick, Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad team up to take him down, and along the way show the town’s adults what teenagers are capable of. Awww. How nice. Not that “Mr. Twister” was all that difficult to contend with, mind you. I think the “Young Allies” could have handled him, and most of them were dead by 1964…

Goofy villains and awkward morals aside, there was something very appealing about the concept, which clearly connected with readers of the era. Having seen these characters, especially Robin, playing second fiddle to their mentors for so long, it must have been very exciting for fans to see them out on their own, interacting with each other (something pretty uncommon for DC Comics of the time, with the exception of JLA), making their own mistakes and getting themselves out of them. Sales must have been good, as the trio made a return engagement in BRAVE AND THE BOLD #60, this time with an official title, “the Teen Titans,” and a new member, Wonder Girl.

The problem was, there really wasn’t a Wonder Girl to join up…

Let me explain. You see, Wonder Woman comics in the 1960s were some fairly outlandish stuff. Under the direction of writer/editor Robert Kanigher, the series focused more on fantasy and fairy-tale like stories, with not a lot of attention paid to continuity or a strictly ordered history. To quote comics writer and historian Mark Waid, “The great thing about it was that one month, say, you’d get a story about the Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Then, eight months later, there’d be a story about the Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. And it would have nothing at all to do with the first story!” In keeping with this fast-and-loose approach, the Wonder Woman stories would occasionally feature stories of Wonder Woman as a young girl (“Wonder Girl”) and even Wonder Woman as a baby (“Wonder Tot”). And sometimes, thanks to an Amazon device known as the Magic Sphere, Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot would go on adventures together, even though they were all the same person.

Now, whether it was the editor or the writer has never been revealed, but someone involved with the Teen Titans clearly took a cursory glance at a WONDER WOMAN comic and said, “Hey, great, there’s a Wonder Girl now! Throw her in the team!” never realizing that they were actually throwing a teenaged Princess Diana into a modern setting, which made absolutely no sense. Eventually, the error was realized, and a character and origin was hastily assembled for Wonder Girl: Donna Troy, an orphan rescued by Princess Diana and raised as an Amazon on Paradise Island as Diana’s sister. Anyway, the second appearance of the Teen Titans proved as popular as the first, and after one more test run in SHOWCASE # 59, the team graduated to its own comic, TEEN TITANS, in January 1966.

By TEEN TITANS #4, the core Titans group for years to come would be completed when Green Arrow’s partner Speedy joined up, if only on a part-time basis at first. The ‘60s TITANS series was notable primarily for its gorgeous art by artist Nick Cardy, who drew some of the most beautiful, appealing women in comics.

Bob Haney’s scripts were hardly realistic, with his attempts at teen slang sounding pretty much like how a man in his 40s thought teenagers spoke (“Fab! Gear! Marv!”), but a lot of fun nonetheless. The Titans would face off against such foes as the Demon Dragster, the Mad Mod and Captain Rumble, all the while referring to each other by some of the most cringeworthy nicknames in comics (“Go get ‘em Fleet-Feet!” “You said it, Gill-Head!” Yeesh.) Take a look at this moment from TEEN TITANS #15, in which the Titans head down to “Hippieville, U.S.A”:

Groovy, man.

Later issues saw the series attempt to get a little more serious, with some new additions to the team, like the mysterious precog Lilith, angry young black man Mal Duncan (who would go through a series of costumed identities, including the Guardian and – hee hee – the Hornblower) and the dueling-brothers team of Hawk and Dove.

After a massive JLA-induced guilt trip, the team temporarily abandoned their costumed identities and enrolled in a touchy-feely “explore your potential” teen program, but thankfully, they got over the guilt pretty fast and soon got back to what they did best: fighting really goofy villains.

By the time the series ended in 1976, serious losers like the Bumblebee and the Joker’s Daughter (who was really – irony of ironies – Two-Face’s daughter) had somehow finagled memberships, and the Titans were reduced to defending their nightclub from roller-disco supervillains the Rocket-Rollers. Clearly, it was time to put this dog to rest.

With the exception of the occasional guest-shot, the Titans lay dormant until 1980, when newly arrived writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez pitched DC on a new Titans series, with elements of the old, but plenty of vital new material as well. The core membership of Robin, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl would remain, with Speedy and Aqualad taking part-time status. New members were introduced, like Starfire, a gorgeous alien powerhouse; Cyborg, a tortured former athlete now more machine than man; and Raven, a sorceress and empath of troubling parentage. Finally, for a healthy dose of comic-relief, former DOOM PATROL hanger-on Beast Boy was reintroduced as the Changeling. The most important change in the new Titans series, however, was in tone, which was made immediately apparent when the first issue of THE NEW TEEN TITANS hit the stands in November 1980.

No longer were the Titans a second-rate team of sidekicks fighting wacky villains and trying to sound “hep.” (And other than the cover, very infrequently did you see the team referred to as the “Teen” Titans.) Almost immediately, Wolfman and Perez upped the ante by pitting the team against Raven’s demonic father Trigon the Terrible, an interdimensional conqueror with designs on the Earth.

Later threats included Deathstroke the Terminator, the world’s greatest assassin, and Brother Blood, a mystical cult leader with thousands of followers, and eventually the resources of an entire nation at his disposal.

Probably the most well-remembered Wolfman/Perez storyline came to a head in “The Judas Contract.” The first new recruit in the New Titans’ run was Terra, a wisecracking 16-year-old with the ability to control the earth itself. Terra’s acceptance in the Titans was a slow one, as both the Titans and the readers slowly got past her tough exterior and came to love the feisty teenager.

In a touching moment from NEW TEEN TITANS #39, Terra is finally trusted with the secret identities of the Titans, just as Kid Flash elects to leave the team and Robin decides to abandon his costumed identity. And it’s at that moment that we learn that Terra is a traitor and a sociopath, sent to infiltrate the Titans by her lover, Deathstroke, who’s still looking to complete his contract to assassinate the Titans. It’s an unsettling moment.

Wolfman and Perez had done a great job of establishing Terra as the Titans’ new “kid sister,” and seeing her tarted up and all over the much older Deathstroke, while still looking very much a child, left the reader both repulsed and confused. (And in some cases, very angry. Wolfman reported at the time actually getting death threats over Terra’s betrayal and eventual fate.)

Thanks to Terra’s betrayal, Deathstroke is able to get the drop on all of the Titans but the former Robin Dick Grayson, laying traps for them thanks to his newly gained knowledge of their civilian identities. With the help of Deathstroke’s mute son Jericho, a mutant with the ability to possess the bodies of those near him, Grayson (now in his new costumed identity of Nightwing) is able to rescue the Titans from the criminal syndicate the H.I.V.E., who had put out the contract to begin with, but not without a cost. When Jericho possesses his father to help free the Titans, the insane Terra thinks she’s been betrayed by Deathstroke, and, already tormented by split loyalties between Deathstroke and the Titans, brings down the H.I.V.E. headquarters on herself, crushing her.

Aside from bigger threats and an emphasis on drama, the hallmark of the Wolfman/Perez run was characterization and growth. No longer saddled with the “Teen” limitation, the characters were not only allowed to demonstrate real personalities, but more important, they were finally allowed to grow up. Dick Grayson, now a man in his early twenties, gives up the “Robin” costume and identity he’d worn since he was 10 years old and becomes Nightwing – a man shaped by his past, but no longer trapped in it.

Grayson also enters into a serious relationship for the first time, and his romance with the alien Starfire is handled with dignity and taste.

Wonder Girl is also given a real life and identity for the first time, as Donna Troy embarks upon a career as a photographer, and finds love with Terry Long, a divorced history professor. NEW TEEN TITANS #50 showcased Donna Troy’s wedding to Terry Long, and did so with class, focusing on the sense of extended family that the best Titans stories always stressed, and without any sort of hackneyed supervillain intrusion upon the nuptials. Everyone who had ever been a Titan was there, along with much of the Titans’ friends and families, and even the NEW TEEN TITANS creators themselves. The fact that later writers corrupted and later killed off the Terry Long character in such a mercenary fashion as to not even show it on panel doesn’t diminish this issue one bit. A simple human story told well beats overblown mindless action any day.

There’s a lot more here to like. Cyborg and Changeling’s love-hate friendship (intentionally mirroring the Thing/Torch dynamic from FANTASTIC FOUR), Kid Flash’s affection for Raven, followed by his sense of betrayal when he discovers his emotions had been manipulated, the exploration of Wonder Girl’s past in “Who Is Donna Troy?”, and lots more. I would rank Wolfman/Perez as one of the great writer/artist teams in comics. They both have done great work individually, but put them together, and it’s magic. To check it out for yourself, there is a DC Archives edition of THE NEW TEEN TITANS’ first eight issues, and there are trade paperbacks available of “The Judas Contract” and “The Terror of Trigon.”

Like all good things, THE NEW TEEN TITANS (later shortened to THE NEW TITANS) eventually came to an end. While Perez remained on the book for almost five years, Wolfman stayed throughout the run of the series, over 16 years, and when he decided he had no more stories to tell, he and DC Comics agreed to cancel the series. Just as well, really. While the series has returned time and again over the years since, it’s never had the same significance as in its 1980s heyday.

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