By Louise Freeman Davis
What Made the Greatest Titans Stories So Great?
Ask a Titans fan to name their favorite stories and three will appear on almost everyone's list: "Who is Donna Troy?" (The New Teen Titans #38); "The Judas Contract" (Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44, plus Annual #3) and "We are Gathered Here Today" (ToTT #50, most commonly referred to as "Donna Troy's Wedding.) Incredibly, all these stories came out in just slightly more than one calendar year: "Who is Donna Troy?" in January 1984, the wedding in February 1985. This was truly an example of a comic book series at its peak.
So what made these stories great? It wasn't non-stop action. It wasn't an earth-shattering catastrophe; in fact, two of the three stories had no villains at all. It certainly wasn't the higher-quality paper (and associated price hike); that was still a year or so away. It was the stories, which were driven by characterization and heart, rather than power and muscle. Let's look at them closer.
Who is Donna Troy?
When people speak of this issue, the word that keeps coming up is "human." For years, Donna "Wonder Girl" Troy had known nothing about her heritage, save that she was rescued from a fire as an infant by Wonder Woman and taken to Paradise Island. Her finance asks her good friend, Dick Grayson, to find out the truth, once and for all, before their wedding, and, using the skills Batman had taught him for so many years, Dick does just that. In their search for answers, the two friends encounter absolutely no danger. No supervillain threatens their lives, and no dark secrets are uncovered. Instead, as Jim Greeno put it, "Dick Grayson and Donna Troy come to life as people that could live across the street from you rather than just characters in a comic book." By the end she knows the truth about her late birthmother, and is reunited with her loving foster family, all of whom would be honored guests at her upcoming nuptials.
Sadly, the Crisis revamp necessitated a retcon of part of this tale, since the revised timeline had Wonder Woman's debut occurring several years after Wonder Girl's. Yet it's also a testament to the uniqueness of this story that the Powers That Be choose to leave it as intact as possible. Donna's birth story and infanthood were kept the same, and so, presumably was Dick's uncovering them for her. Her rescuer became Rhea, a Titan of Myth instead of Wonder Woman, while her childhood home became New Chronus rather than Paradise Island. The events related in "Who is Donna Troy?" had become such a fundamental part of the character that it became preferable to remove Wonder Girl's connection to Wonder Woman than to tamper with the classic NTT #38.
Donna Troy's revised New Chronus origin was explained in the 5-part "Who is Wonder Girl?" which, though a good tale in its own right, did not capture the heart the way this much simpler, single issue did. I'm not going to comment on the recent ret-retcon in Wonder Woman #134-136, which attempted to re-establish a link to Wonder Woman by making Donna Troy a kidnapped clone of Diana, except to say that the fact that this story arc shares the title of the original borders on blasphemy. I knew "Who is Donna Troy?" I read "Who is Donna Troy?" and this, sir, is no "Who is Donna Troy?"
The Judas Contract
George Gustines described this arc as "a big event before BIG EVENTS became commonplace." It covered only three issues and one Annual, relatively short by today's standards, but would leave the Titans forever transformed. Before it was over, one of their members would die, new one would join, and perhaps most importantly, Dick Grayson would become the first kid sidekick to shed his child's costume and adopt a new, adult identity. Since then, all of the original Titans have followed suit, but never more effectively.
Sure, readers had known Terra was secretly working for the Terminator for a while. But she was a Titan, right? A fresh-faced teenaged girl she couldn't really be a traitor, could she? This is the comics, and she's been hanging out with the good guys for months. She'd be redeemed at the end, right?
Wrong. As it turns out, she's bad news, through and through, and by the end, she's dead. Flip back through the previous issues and you'll find the signs of her corruption were there all along; but we, like the Titans, saw what we wanted to see. At the end, Tara Markov wasn't even worth crying for, though of course, the Titans did. And so did some of the fans.
Compared to "Who is Donna Troy?", this story was more typical superhero fare, but the emotional aspect certainly was not lost. Most notably, Wolfman and Perez weren't afraid to interrupt the action in favor of characterization when the story called for it. In a move reminiscent of the original Tales of the New Teen Titans mini-series (the villain-free camping trip where we met the new characters one-by-one, as they told their life stories around the fireplace) most of ToTT #44 is given over to a biography of Deathstroke the Terminator and his son, the mute Joseph Wilson, who would join the Titans as Jericho. Then we're treated to a charming scene of Dick Grayson donning his Nightwing garb for the first time, as he explains the significance of his new identity. When's the last time a "Big Event" paused for that rich an explanation of a character's history and motivation, while our hero's lives hung in the balance? But it worked beautifully.
The final fight scene, though packed with action, also did not lose its heart. Terra, the one we expected to be redeemed, turned out to be beyond hope. Though we felt Nightwing's regret when he finally exclaimed, "I don't think Terra can be reasoned with any longer!" we knew he was right. On the other hand, Deathstroke the Terminator, whom we were meant to despise, became Slade Wilson, atypical villain: a grieving father driven to fulfill his dead son's contract. Though we had only known Joseph Wilson for an issue or so, his introduction was sufficient that we grieved for him, as well, as he helped the team defeat his father. A new Titan was born.
Compare what these four issues accomplished versus another "Big Event That Will Change the Team Forever": Titans Hunt. I realize some readers liked this story arc, particularly in the beginning. Certainly the intentions were good: to shake up the team and shock the readers in the same way Judas Contract had done, and to end with a fresh new lineup about whom new, fun tales could be told. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. Rather than describe the plot I'll quote some "next issue" blurbs of the time.
From New Titans # 74. Okay - remember in issue #71 how I said we had a really big shocking surprise coming up around issue #76? Well, (we) decided what the heck, let's give everyone a cow 30 days earlier than we planned Now, I don't want to say that this one will throw you all for a loop, but I'm warning you now, it happens on page 13 so you may as well get your pens and paper ready and envelopes stamped because I know you're all going to want to write in about this revelation and scream at me. Trust me - when I said we'd shake things up, I wasn't kidding.
NT #78 The most momentous saga in TITANS history begins next month. Now, I can hear you all saying, "Jonathan! What are you talking about? WHAT momentous saga? We're still in the midst of
NT #82 Boys, hold onto your girlfriends - because our next issue is destined to leave all Titans fans unconscious in disbelief. Why? Because not only does it end with quite possibly our most stunning last page yet seen in the course of this saga (and we've seen some doozies!) No, that wouldn't be good enough for us. (Hey, we love to top ourselves every month!) Instead, this issue will end with quite possibly the most shocking last page in Titans HISTORY!
And finally, by NT # 83. After months of toying with you, THIS is the main event - And when the smoke clears (and we're talking some seriously major smoke here!) try to pick your jaws up off the ground. After all, keep in mind this is only the beginning of the changes headed the Titans' way!
Only the beginning And this went on for 2 freakin' years! What started out as exciting new developments got old real quick when it was clear there was no end in sight to the chaos. Not only had the lessons of the Judas Contract been forgotten, but the writers had apparently not figured out what most do by age five; incessant poking, jabbing and saying, "you're going to be sooooo surprised" actually reduces the suspense level considerably, and makes it almost impossible for the final product to live up to the hype.
So, what were some of these shocking surprises? For almost 10 years the Titans managed to stick to their guns: they had made that boldest and rarest of comic book moves, to kill a popular character as part of a well-crafted storyline, and keep him/her dead, only to cheapen it all with the return of an all-new Terra as part of the ill-advised and ill-fated Team Titans. Jericho got possessed, turned evil and was killed by his own father. Unlike with Terra, there were no warning signs and this wasn't a choice he made. In his villainous stage, he even gained the ability to talk, and became essentially unrecognizable as the same character. The end result: we didn't see a member of the family betray the team, we saw one morph into a complete stranger. So, even though Joseph Wilson was not to blame for his actions and death, it was ultimately harder to grieve for him than for the utterly corrupt Terra. A character who'd been around for 40-odd issues deserved better.
As for Deathstroke, he got his own book, but then got de-aged and developed amnesia, losing all of his ethics and unique personality traits to become just another tough guy who fights well for a price. And those are just the examples of how the historic developments of the Judas Contract were undone. You don't want to *know* what happened to the rest of the team, and to the bonds they had formed for so many years. Our favorite Titans were depowered, repowered, killed, rebuilt, reborn, corrupted and redeemed so frequently that readers did indeed feel they were being toyed with, and many, myself included, got bored with the game and turned away. The old friends we lost were not replaced by new; the action never slowed down long enough to adequately introduce the new characters. We were never given an origin for Pantha, for instance, or an explanation of why Mirage and the new Terra survived Zero Hour. Far from becoming "THE book of the nineties", THE book of the eighties degenerated into the antithesis of its former self, until all that could be done was to put it out of its misery.
I'd better move on to a happier topic before I get really depressed.
We Are Gathered Here Today
In this issue, the elements that had worked so well in "Who is Donna Troy?" came together again, but this time involved the entire team. Even better, the guest list included almost every individual who was ever a member of any Titans team. A true homecoming: no costumes, no villains, just a big family reunion, and an atypical comic book wedding, in that no catastrophes ensued.
Another bonus was the level of in-jokes and Easter eggs, the likes of which would not be seen again until Kingdom Come. Sharp-eyed readers can spot celebrities like Sting, Placido Domingo and Michael Jackson at the wedding, along with assorted DC personnel. Fans from the APA TitanTalk appeared as guests and as part of the photographer's crew. And visiting Titans poked fun at some continuity errors in their own history, when Duela Dent finally admits there is no way she could be Two-Face's daughter, and someone remarks that they thought Hawk and Dove should be older. This was a book written with die-hard fans in mind.
There are dozens of scenes that evoke smiles as the family-like ties between the Titans are demonstrated: Dick's visit to Donna in her dressing room before he gives her away, Cyborg's initial anger and later apology for his reaction when he learns how Changeling arranged for him to be inconspicuous, Wally West's and Roy Harper's wistfulness over not being Titans anymore. Perhaps the most memorable, however, is THE scene is between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, when Dick finally learns why it is Bruce never tried to adopt him. Many readers have remarked that these few panels shed more light on the unique bond between them than the hundreds of books that chronicle their adventures as Batman and Robin. The writer who can skillfully ret-retcon this scene back into Post-Crisis continuity will undoubtedly earn a place in the Bat-Titan Hall of Fame.
Since this heyday, four separate Titans teams have been introduced: 1) the Post-Titan-Hunt team that included Pantha, Baby Wildebeest and Redstar, 2) the previously mentioned Team Titans, 3) the post Zero Hour Roy Harper-led team that picked up some leftover Teamers along with some newer heroes like Damage and Impulse, and 4) the all-new Jurgens Teen Titans, who came along in 1996. None have succeeded; in fact, almost all of these incarnations ended quite abruptly, as if the writers looked at the scripts one way, wadded them into a ball and tossed them into the wastebasket with a promise to start over again on Monday. I seriously doubt any of their adventures will be covered in the Greatest Stories Fanzing of 2010. Now there are plans to re-launch an all-new Titans series, written by relative newcomer Devin Grayson, with the five original sidekicks in their adult identities (Nightwing, Flash, Arsenal, Tempest and Whoever-Donna-Troy-Will-Be-Next) plus five as-yet-unannounced young heroes. Can this next team avoid a similar fate?
Yes, I believe it can. In a recent interview with Another-Universe, Ms. Grayson said, "I'm hoping older fans will allow me some time to introduce new readers to our new core Titans group in the beginning of the actual series." I hope so, too, since that would certainly be a step in the right direction. The greatest of the Titans stories stressed character over action, which requires that we get to know the characters first. As Jim Greeno said, "The thing that separates the Titans from the rest of the comics universe is their family atmosphere. Judas Contract was a compelling story because it centered around someone taking advantage of the team's closeness and exploiting it as a weakness." Certainly "non-action" stories like "Who is Donna Troy?" and ToTT # 50 work only if the characters feel like personal friends to us. An unrushed, well-written introduction can achieve what months of teaser questions like "Who is masterminding the Wildebeest?" "Who will die next?" and "Who is Omen?" could not do: make us care what happens to the people beneath the costumes. That was the magic of the Titans of the eighties, and ultimately, it is characterization, rather than powers, codenames or calamities that will make or break the Titans of the new century.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © 1998 by Louise Freeman Davis.