Nov 30, 2012

The New Teen Titans/Uncanny X-Men Connection

In 1975, Marvel Comics had a breakout hit with their revamped Uncanny X-Men, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Dave Cockrum and, later, John Byrne. This new X-Men team featured classic X-characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey, new characters like Storm and Colossus, and a pre-existing character who had never been an X-Man in Wolverine. The series emphasized group dynamics and had a soap operatic approach, highlighting personal relationships as much as the good guys fighting the bad guys.  People ate it up.

The crown jewel of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run was The Dark Phoenix Saga, in which longtime X-Man Jean Grey, possessed by the ever-powerful Phoenix Force, turned evil. It was a tragic story and is also touted as the tale in which Wolverine became a superstar.

The Dark Phoenix Saga ran from January to October 1980, and in November 1980, DC Comics launched The New Teen Titans. Utilizing much of the same formula — classic Titans (Robin, later Nightwing; Kid Flash, Donna Troy), new characters (Starfire, Cyborg, Raven), and a pre-existing character who had never been a member (Changeling) — Titans also emphasized character development and interpersonal relationships. That's about it in terms of similarities, but since it went head to head with the X-Men in terms of sales, it is still, to this day, mentioned in in comparison to the X-Men.

New Teen Titans was very successful. It was the comic where Dick Grayson shed his Robin identity and became Nightwing. It introduced three new characters that are still used today (Cyborg is in the Justice League). The Titans cartoon in the early part of the 21st Century was based on that very team. It had an incredibly popular crossover with the X-Men, and was scheduled for a second. And its creative team, Marv Wolfman and George Perez, was the same creative team on Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC's first big (and to this day, I'd say biggest) event.

But it didn't make the same kind of mark the X-Men did. By that, I mean that people can speak of the Claremont and Byrne's X-Men for hours on end without ever bringing up the New Teen Titans, but talking about the New Teen Titans (the comics, at least), it seems almost inevitable that the X-Men will be brought up. When people talk about the New Teen Titans, their crossover with the X-Men gets brought up much sooner than when people talk about the X-Men. I've always had a bit more affection for DC than Marvel (and even then more of an affection for the rest of Marvel than the X-Men), so I acquired in the last few years a complete collection of Wolfman and Perez's Titans, and have thought about the whys and wherefores regarding their constant comparison to the X-Men.

One possible reason for this is their choice for pre-existing character not then affiliated with the team. The X-Men used Wolverine—also known as Logan—a Len Wein creation, to great effect—he was the perfect superhero for the Dirty Harry archetype that was so popular in that era. The New Teen Titans utilized Changeling, formerly known as Beast Boy, and gave him a lot of screen time. Not only was the shapeshifting Changeling originally from the Doom Patrol, a team that's always been associated with the X-Men, but his real name was... Garfield Logan.

It's so weird. You almost wonder if that was intentional on Wolfman and Perez's part.

From The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans

I don't think it was, though I do think it's a gigantic coincidence.

Changeling, loved as he is today by creators and hardcore fans alike, never became the breakout star that Wolverine did, nor did he even come close to it, but he did get a lot of screen time, and in fact, was almost the central Titan in what's considered to be the crown jewel of that run, The Judas Contract.

The Judas Contract is the culmination of the story that kicked off in the first Titans arc. Early in the book's run, Deathstroke the Terminator, the world's premiere assassin, inherits his dead son's contract to bring the Titans to terrorist group H.I.V.E. To help him out with this contract, he enlists the help of Tara Markov, Terra, a teenage girl with the power to cause shifts in the earth.

Terra was always a villain—there was no part of her that was redeemable, and she constantly lied to the Titans. When she reveals herself as a spy (not a traitor; she'd have had to be one of them to be a traitor), she just goes out of her way to kill them. The narration makes it clear that it's that simple: she's evil and there's no redemption. The end result has Deathstroke actually looking like the bad guy with the good heart in comparison.

Deathstroke and Terra capture all the Titans except for Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing), who then teams up with a new character to save the rest of the team. It results in Tara's death.

When I first read this story in trade paperback form in 2004, I was actually really underwhelmed. It didn't help that the TPB started with Terra already on the team, so the big reveal that she was actually working for the Terminator wasn't there (that's just the nature of collections of 80s comics; they're meant to be read without any gaps and in serialized form), but the utter one-dimensionality of Terra just did not make for captivating writing, or at least not writing that was so captivating as what The Judas Contract's reputation made it out to be. When the Teen Titans cartoon did the same storyline, they wisely had Terra as a more empathetic character, which gave more meat and depth to the story.

After putting the book down, it didn't take all that much thought to figure out why it made such an impact. It turned over superhero conventions at the time, showing the seemingly innocent little girl as the irredeemable insane villain. "We knew that if George drew Tara as a cute little girl, everyone would assume she'd reform," says Wolfman in George Perez: Storyteller. And indeed, that's what happened.

Perez says in his Modern Masters volume:

I wanted her to be cute, but not beautiful. She looked like a young girl. I gave her a very substantial overbite, her eyes were wide, her body was slim, she wasn't particularly busty. I wanted her to look almost elfin, so that when you see her for the first time wearing full makeup and dressed in a provocative outfit where you know she's just been in bed with Deathstroke that it does jab you a bit. "Whoa, good God! This little girl is a slut!"

But that's a semiotic effect; it works because it inverts the semiotics that's carried on Terra's visual. But why did it work so well back in 1983? Well, in the aforementioned The Dark Phoenix Saga, Claremont and Byrne introduced a cute-as-a-button teenage girl named Kitty Pryde, who would later be known as Sprite and Shadowcat. She was hugely popular, and remains so to this day. Wolfman decided to capitalize on that.

In his introduction to the 2003 TPB of The Judas Contract, he says:

"Now, I love puncturing balloons, and I decided if some fans thought we were an X-Men clone, then why not play with them a bit? The X-Men had just introduced a new member to their group, a 14-year-old cute-as-a-button girl with incredible powers. I'd do the same. I'd play her as a villain, then seemingly reform and have her join the Titans. Only I'd have her constantly lie to the Titans, change her stories, do suspicious things, and, in general, make her a louse. I could do that, I knew, because comic book convention would demand that readers ignore all the evidence and assume she was a good girl. After all, the X-Men's Kitty Pryde was a heroine, so even the lying, cheating, conniving Tara Markov had to have a heart of gold, right?"

So it did make an impact out of overturning convention, but as it turns out, a convention the X-Men had perfected and were using to great effect at the time. And The Judas Contract, as stated before, introduced the new character Jericho, Deathstroke's mute son who had the power to take over other people's bodies as soon as he made eye contact. He made his costumed debut in the same page as Dick Grayson's Nightwing identity did, actually undercutting Dick's big moment. He goes on to be the one who saves the Titans and was heavily pushed.

Sorry, I love Wolfman and Perez as much as
any kid who started reading comics in the 80s,
but what ever made them think Jericho could share
the same amount of space as Nightwing?

Jericho's powers are innate. He's a mutant, and the text calls him so. When he and Nightwing go off to rescue the Titans, Dick makes the following remark:

"A mutant, eh? Well, we've got aliens, witches, shapechangers, and cyborgs.
So why not a mutant? 'Sides, I hear you guys aren't half bad."

Although there are never really more than superficial similarities between The New Teen Titans and the Uncanny X-Men, the former just doesn't seem able to shake the comparison, and it doesn't help that the X-Men's fingerprints are all over what's supposed to be the crown jewel of the Titans' golden run. So there's a What If for you guys. Would the Titans have stood the test of time better (which is not to say it doesn't stand the test of time right now; just if it would do so better) if the Judas Contract never happened? The impact was certainly there back in 1983 when the Titans and the X-Men went head to head, but would The Judas Contract be more powerful over time, the way The Dark Phoenix Saga is, than it was if it didn't play off the X-Men so much?

We'll never really know. What I do know is this: reading the entirety of Wolfman and Perez's New Teen Titans in one go, I definitely found myself enjoying it, finding things in it to both love (this has my favorite version of Dick Grayson and Donna Troy ever) and hate (for a character I love so much, I certainly want to punch Wally West in the face a disproportionate amount of times here, and Terry Long). But getting to the culmination of that run, The Judas Contract, I couldn't stop comparing it to the X-Men. Maybe it's because Wolfman and Perez always talk about Kitty Pryde when they talk about the story; maybe it's because the plays on the X-Men are so palpable. But whatever the reason, it's hard to take The Judas Contract in a vacuum—and in fact, when I did, I found it underwhelming—and I think that's a shame.

On the Titans' side though, Deathstroke would go on to be the inspiration for Deadpool, who counts as an X-character... and who ended up being one of the most popular creations from the 90s onward. Wow, even when the Titans are the ones getting ripped off, they can't seem to win!

From Superman/Batman Annual #1. Deadpool is never named,
but he's the one on the left.

Despite everything I said here, I really do recommend reading Wolfman and Perez's The New Teen Titans. It's great superhero fun, and if nothing else will introduce you to the horror that is Terry Long.


J. L. Bell said...

"Dude! I volunteered for the Titans before anyone else! And ever heard of Titans West? 'Never an X-man'--sheesh!"

--Gar Logan

Duy Tano said...

How did that slip by me? GHA! Fixed!

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