"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Thinking about the idea of “definitive” runs (touched on last week) brings me back to one of DC’s seminal creative teams. Of course, for fortyish DC fans like me, that team could only be Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, whose New Teen Titans helped DC straddle the line between Silver Age homage and Marvel-style soap opera.
When NTT premiered in the summer of 1980, the DC superhero line looked pretty static: Cary Bates and Curt Swan on Action Comics, Gerry Conway writing Justice League, Irv Novick drawing Batman, Don Heck drawing Flash. Not that these were talentless hacks churning out pulp dreck — far from it — but Marvel had Frank Miller, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Wolfman and Pérez themselves. Teen Titans was a twice-cancelled title, yadda yadda yadda, naturally it changed the course of DC’s history.*
It sounds redundant to call Wolfman and Pérez’s four-year collaboration “definitive” — how could it have been otherwise? — so I won’t dwell on that too much. Instead, for now let’s say it was a singular collaboration, with a beginning, middle, and end. Many of the book’s long-term story arcs began as character-based subplots, and many of those were on display in issue #1. Besides the issue’s main plot (Starfire escaping the Gordanians), Robin is snippy to Batman, Wonder Girl reminisces at the site of the abandoned building where she was rescued as an infant, Kid Flash has to be coaxed back into superheroics, and Cyborg hates his half-human existence.
When George Pérez left the book in the fall of 1984, each of those subplots had been explored to relative completion, and each ended up changing its subject significantly. The Nightwing identity solved Robin’s issues as Batman’s junior partner. Retirement likewise resolved Kid Flash’s own issues as a reluctant superhero. Wonder Girl eventually discovered her real family and started a new one with husband Terry Long. Raven, who initially brought the Titans together to fight her demonic father, ended up sacrificing herself to defeat him. Cyborg learned to be comfortable with his new body. Starfire avenged herself upon her sister and helped free her star-system from despotic rule. Changeling came to grips with the Doom Patrol’s sacrifice, fell in love with a sociopath, and (in issue #55, drawn by Ron Randall) made peace with one of the Titans’ greatest foes.
Although most of these subplots were served by larger storylines, it’s hard for me to see Wolfman and Pérez’s run as a series of disconnected arcs, because (not unlike the Titans themselves) they all depend on each other. For example, issue #1 not only brings Starfire to Earth, its fallout helps convince young Grant Wilson to become a supervillain. When that leads to Grant’s death, it causes his father Slade to come into the employ of The H.I.V.E., and that kicks off the three-year-plus Terminator subplot which builds to “The Judas Contract.” Indeed, “TJC” is the first way-station along what would become Wolfman and Pérez’s victory lap. The other two are Wonder Girl’s wedding in Tales of the Teen Titans #50 and Trigon’s looks-pretty-final defeat in NTT vol. 2 #5 (both published a little over six months later, in the fall of 1984).
Now, from what I understand, George Pérez didn’t necessarily want to leave Titans after four years, but various factors (including the demands of Crisis On Infinite Earths) forced him off the title. Certain subplots, including Cyborg’s grandparents, Azrael and Lilith’s arc, Frances Kane’s superhero career, and Starfire’s wedding, were introduced (or teased**) late in Pérez’s tenure, but left for Wolfman to finish with other artists.
So while it’s not like the two were out of ideas, or were even planning to provide that much closure, they were still able to wrap up pretty much all of what they’d started. The second Trigon storyline (which kicked off NTT Volume 2) even pointed this out, by using evil doppelgangers to remind the heroes about their supposed failings. I get the feeling that Pérez really wanted to follow up on big changes like the Nightwing identity, Donna’s marriage, and Raven’s transformation, but circumstances left those to Wolfman and the artists with whom he worked. When Perez returned to the book some four years later, he did work on a Batman/Nightwing/Robin story (the “Lonely Place Of Dying” crossover which introduced Tim Drake) and “Who Is Wonder Girl?” (the Crisis-inspired revision of Donna’s origin), but his stay was too short to do much in the way of real character development.
Therefore, even though Titans went on without Pérez, I still tend to look at those first four years — issues #1-50 of Volume 1 and issues #1-5 of Volume 2 — as a singular, standalone work. (Issues #51-58 of the original series bridge the gap between the newsstand-distributed Volume 1 and the direct-market-first Volume 2. They aren’t drawn by Pérez, but he and Wolfman were editing both books as well, and I think that should count for something.) Again, these stories are “definitive” by default, in the sense that they lay the ground work for future writers and artists to use these characters.
Nevertheless, Wolfman and Pérez made it harder on their successors (and in Wolfman’s case, himself), because they brought closure to the subplots which initially defined these characters. Why do another “Dick separates from Batman” or “Vic feels like a freak” arc when those subplots had already been addressed? Of course, this didn’t stop DC from hinting that “Lonely Place” might end with Dick back as Robin, and Pérez’s own Wonder Woman reboot once again threw Donna’s origins into question. Through Crisis, the duo also undid Wally West’s retirement. Basically, new wrinkles awaited, among them Dick’s brainwashing, Raven’s struggles with emotion, and Speedy’s love-child. It’s just not realistic to think that a successful book like New Teen Titans would end merely because one of its founders had gone and its stories had all been satisfactorily told.***
Indeed, I kept reading Titans both because I liked the characters and because Wolfman was still writing it. Honestly, though, it wasn’t hard to see what Pérez brought to the characters. As much as I came to appreciate regular artists like Eduardo Barreto and Tom Grummett, I always hoped (especially in the mid-‘80s) that Pérez would come back. Once he’d left for the second time, and the book devolved into ‘90s excess (issue #100 featured a chromium cover), I dropped it. Several years later, I picked the last few years of New Titans out of back-issue boxes — mostly to figure out where the characters would be at the start of the upcoming JLA/Titans miniseries.
That led into the first New Teen Titans reunion book, which lasted 50 issues. The second, the current Titans title, didn’t quite make it to two years before being turned over to the Terminator and other associated bad guys. I’d say this is because no one other than Wolfman or Pérez — no, not even pro-fans Devin Grayson and Phil Jiminez — has ever really “gotten” this particular group, and ordinarily I’d just recommend not forcing them back together for old times’ sake. As we know, however, Dick, Donna, and Vic are now Justice Leaguers, which is nice. Kory is a R.E.B.E.L., Wally is busy being a dad (I presume), and Gar and Raven are with today’s Teen Titans. The characters all seem to have found comfortable niches …
… but it seems like DC perpetually has trouble figuring out how to “do Titans right.” Going back to the Wolfman/Pérez well hasn’t been especially successful, but these characters are so identified as the adult Titans that it’s hard to imagine anyone else on the roster. While I like letting them find new places to be productive, at the same time I know they won’t be Leaguers, etc., forever. Just as tradition and/or nostalgia will surely reunite the original Justice League, it will once again try to reunite the New Teen Titans. The problem is, I’m not sure another reunion would be worth it for either the readers or the characters.
Marv and George did too good a job the first time around.
* [Pretty much literally, if you consider that NTT basically led to them doing Crisis.]
** [See, e.g., TitansTower.com’s “Perez Rarities” for an Azrael design and Frances’ first Magenta costume.]
*** [Actually, if you only bought your comics through the newsstand, that’s exactly what you might have thought. Tales of the Teen Titans — the retitled Volume 1 — reprinted the first thirty-odd issues of Volume 2, so it concluded with a massive Tamaran/Zandia/Mento/Brother Blood storyline which reunited the fractured team and dispatched the Titans’ last remaining major villain.]