Grumpy Old Fan | With Games, the play’s the thing
The New Teen Titans: Games is the latest in an ever-expanding series of projects I never thought I’d see — a list which includes 2001’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, 2005’s Englehart/Rogers/Austin Dark Detective, the various Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League International reunions, and of course George Pérez finally getting his bravura turn on JLA/Avengers.
In the waning years of the 1980s (so the stories go), New Teen Titans co-creator Marv Wolfman had an idea for a Titans graphic novel. Wolfman, Pérez, and editor Barbara Kesel conceived Games — basically a supervillain-caper story with an espionage/terrorism angle — as a one-shot spinoff of the wildly successful ongoing series. Pérez then drew some 70 pages before complications sent the project into the limbo of unfinished possibilities. However, as the years went by and the stars realigned, and that possibility of finishing Games turned into probability, Wolfman and Pérez were forced to rethink their approach to the material, both in terms of changed styles and changes in content.
Accordingly, the Games we have today isn’t quite an artifact or a re-creation. Although it is rooted significantly in Titans lore, it doesn’t seem inaccessible to new readers. It’s a continuation which, for various reasons, can’t be “official,” and it’s also a standalone story which offers another look at the pair’s signature work. It may well be their last word on these characters, but it’s hardly an ending. It’s what they would have done twenty-odd years ago, except that it works best when taken slightly out of that context. Take it from someone who grew up in the land of strong bourbon — Games may be one of the most potent distillations of the Wolfman/Pérez experience.
Naturally, all that requires some explanation, so here we go….
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
When fans discuss the “Wolfman/Pérez Titans,” odds are good they mean the five years and fifty-odd issues produced from 1980 through 1984. That seminal run ended with Pérez leaving not long after New Teen Titans had been split into two titles (Volume 2 retained the name and the original became Tales of the Teen Titans). Fortunately, before Pérez left, he and Wolfman wrapped up the major characters’ subplots fairly satisfactorily. For example, Pérez’s last issue of Tales (#50) spotlighted Donna Troy’s perfectly ordinary wedding, and his last issue of NTT vol. 2 (#5) featured Raven’s transfiguration (and Trigon’s pretty-final-looking death).
Of course, it wasn’t the end of Wolfman and Pérez’s collaboration, since they moved on to 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths. Wolfman remained on NTT vol. 2, first with five issues from José Luis Garcia-Lopéz and then some three more years with regular artist Eduardo Barreto. During this time (in 1986, according to his foreword), Wolfman came up with the basic idea for Games. Pérez (who had gone on to relaunch Wonder Woman) then returned for 1988’s New Titans #50. He stayed for about a year as penciller and co-plotter, although Tom Grummett started finishing his layouts with #58 and became full penciller with #62.* After that, Pérez was credited as “co-plotter” of issues #66 and 67.
From what I can tell, the plot for Games was worked out between 1986 and 1988, during what became Pérez’s hiatus. Regardless, much of it reflects the status quo of Pérez’s second stint (“Pérez 2″).** Most significantly, Donna appears as Troia, the post-Wonder Girl identity she assumed upon learning of her true heritage from the Titans of (Greek) Myth in New Titans #s 50-55 . This storyline, which at the time was only the second revision of Donna’s origin — and the first to affect her superheroic identity in any meaningful way*** — took up about half of Pérez 2 (and most of the issues with Pérez’s full pencils). Thus, without getting too far into minutiae, it’s sufficient to say that Games fits loosely into the Titans timeline somewhere between the end of “A Lonely Place Of Dying” (circa #61) and #71’s wow-that’s-pretty-final end of the classic team roster.**** However, “loosely” is as good as continuity cops can get, because details like Danny Chase’s inclusion on the team (Dick fired him in the aforementioned #55) and Tim Drake’s brief appearances (he was originally meant to be Jason Todd) require some rationalization.
I mention all of this because despite being famous for particular stories (the Doom Patrol three-parter, “Who Is Donna Troy?”, “The Judas Contract,” etc.), New Teen Titans is best enjoyed as a four-year-plus whole, starting from the preview in DC Comics Presents #26 and going at least through Tales #50. Such a reading allows careful readers to see the characters’ subplots germinate and develop over the years, from Dick’s relationship to Batman to Donna’s search for her parents to Vic’s acceptance of his superheroic career. Even “The Judas Contract” doesn’t stand on its own, but is the payoff for some eighteen months’ worth of Terra/Terminator subplots. (Naturally, the Terminator’s subplot really began with his introduction, all the way back in 1980’s issue #2 — and neither Terminator nor Changeling got closure over Terra’s death until a year later, in Tales #55.)
Accordingly, while one’s first impulse is to see Games as a “lost chapter” of Titans history, ironically that’s not the case at all. Again, Games is a glimpse into the Pérez 2 which might have been. A number of ideas that Pérez described for the characters, including Changeling going back to school and Jericho’s polyamorous lifestyle, appear in the graphic novel. However, while it may be easy to map the opening chapters onto one or two issues, the centerpiece of Games is a taut sequence of interlocking action scenes, showing the Titans squaring off against the Gamesmaster’s “playing pieces.” For this section of the book, Pérez uses brief flashbacks to show how Nightwing and the Titans have prepared for their foes. Combined with the customarily-efficient Pérez layouts, it’s a pretty effective technique. A red border distinguishes the flashback panels, but even that is almost unnecessary, because Pérez frames the action within the flashbacks so well that the reader recognizes the shift in perspective. To try and fit the whole thing into a twenty-odd-page single issue would rob it of its power — better instead to let the reader ease into it gradually, only realizing how far it’s escalated when it’s well underway. Speaking of which, Games includes some pretty major changes to the Titans’ supporting cast, ones which appear difficult to reconcile with the events of the regular series, and which argue for putting Games in its own little corner of continuity.
As for its merits otherwise, Games is very good, but not perfect. Wolfman’s dialogue can still sound somewhat forced (and occasionally is marred with odd, affectless punctuation choices). Some of Pérez’s faces are actually unattractive when they shouldn’t be, his characters sometimes pose and/or emote a little too dramatically, and inkers Al Vey and Mike Perkins don’t always serve the pencils that well. (There’s some weird production value too — at times the book itself looks a little hazy, as if the lines have been slightly erased.) Regardless, it’s a well-constructed story, with some genuine shocks, which never loses sight of the characters’ personalities or their continued development. Games may not have the epic scope (with attendant character management) of Crisis On Infinite Earths or JLA/Avengers, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a rudimentary superhero story. When Wolfman and Pérez talk about the Titans as if they were real individuals, it’s not just because they have such familiarity with the characters, but because they recognize where the characters have been and where they need to go.
That’s the real appeal of Games — the sense of reuniting with these characters not as we remember them, but as they’ve “grown.” Of all the corporately-owned superhero-comics characters (touched by many hands) who I have followed over the years, very few are as closely identified with a particular creative team as the New Teen Titans. The Titans series launched by Devin Grayson and Phil Jiminez in the late ‘90s was pretty much a love letter to Wolfman/Pérez, and just about every Titans team since Wolfman left has paid its respects to their work.
Indeed, the emphasis is on “their” work, because Wolfman wrote over twice as many Titans issues without Pérez as he did with him, and Pérez has drawn the Titans a handful of times without Wolfman — but good as those separate efforts have been, the pair’s collaboration on these characters has a unique chemistry which feels ten times more right. Therefore, I don’t pretend that any other creative team, whether it’s Grayson and Jiminez, Geoff Johns and Mike McKone, or Judd Winick and his unsettled squad of artists, can ever replicate Wolfman/Pérez.
Nor should they try. Over the years, Wolfman and Pérez appear to have told the stories they wanted to tell with these characters. Dick was a frustrated senior sidekick who grew into a confident team leader. Wally West had actually retired as a sidekick (and his Titans adventures drove him back into retirement), but eventually he became the proud bearer of his uncle’s legacy.***** Raven and Joey made their own ways, apart from their villainous fathers, and Kory made her own way on the emotionally-primitive Earth. Donna found her old family and started a new one, Gar found a new maturity after dealing with his grief, and Vic found out he was a role model. Wolfman and Pérez developed the Titans into fully-formed characters, but in a way that spoiled readers for anything else.
For this reason, I think Games is both a good introduction to the Wolfman/Pérez Titans and a satisfying reunion for us lifers. It’s not the first time DC has traded on this kind of nostalgia, and it won’t be the last. However, the nature of Games, and for that matter of the Wolfman/Pérez Titans, allows the new graphic novel to be a window into what must now be seen as a bygone era.
So if you’re new to New Teen Titans, by all means read Games to see what the fuss was all about … and then read as many of the original stories as you can. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez changed the course of DC’s superhero line, but it didn’t happen overnight, and it deserves to be experienced issue by issue. Nominally a coda, Games is also an invitation, to get to know old friends all over again.
* [Issue #61, Pérez’s last issue as layout artist, was part 4 of “A Lonely Place Of Dying,” the five-part crossover with Batman which introduced Tim Drake as Robin.]
** [Thus, since the book’s title changed to New Titans with Pérez’s issue #50 return, the purist in me thinks that The New Teen Titans: Games should drop the “Teen” from its title. The rest of me is just happy to read the darn thing.]
*** [Yes, it’s all too typical that Donna’s origin gets a footnote -- but for the record, I don’t consider the leap from “artifact of Wonder Woman’s weird Silver Age imaginary stories” to “actual character with mysterious past” to have revised her origin. She just didn’t have an origin when she appeared with the Titans initially. Donna/Wonder Girl’s history was revealed in 1969's Teen Titans vol. 1 #23, with Wolfman and Pérez fleshing out her pre-Paradise Island background in 1983's “Who Is Donna Troy?” from vol. 1's #38. Thus, as shocking as it may sound, Donna’s superheroic origin stood pretty much inviolate for almost twenty years.]
**** [New Titans celebrated the group’s 10th anniversary in 1990 essentially by irrevocably altering the status quo. By the end of “Titan Hunt” in #84, Jericho, Raven, and Danny were dead, Cyborg was in a vegetative state, and Changeling and Troia had all but retired from superheroics. That left Nightwing and Starfire to form a new New Titans which included Red Star, Pantha, Baby Wildebeest, and Phantasm. Don’t worry if none of those names are especially familiar.]
***** [I know this happened in Crisis, but a) it was a Wolfman/Pérez comic, which counts for a lot; and b) I thought Wally got kind of a raw deal when he left the team.]