Only In The Eighties
Or The New Teen Titans In The Reagan Era
Americans, as visitors to the country keep telling me, are like children. They believe in the paranormal, UFOs and religion unquestioningly; they see the world in black and white; they believe practically everything they see on TV; they believe that their country can do no wrong; they feel no guilt about being part of a culture based on conspicuous consumption (think of how greedy children are for expensive toys, like GI Joe figures, Barbies, etc); and, if they are boys, they love guns, military hardware and Star Wars-type death rays. It stands to reason that, in 1981, Americans elected a president who stood for precisely those values and wanted, for his fellow Americans, all the things that children want.
As I child, and then a teenager, I adored this president and his decade - the 1980s. The Reagan economic boom certainly left its impress on the comic book world: it was a decade of high quality and high sales in comic books, with Alan Moore's The Watchmen, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Marvel's Secret Wars and its Epic line, DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths and The New Teen Titans. The superstar artists of the period - John Byrne, Frank Miller, George Perez and others - were never better.
While the Batman, Superman and X-Men stories of the nineties are eminently forgettable, the Batman, Superman and X-Men stories of the eighties were excellent in terms of characterisation, artwork, editing and plotting. Coincidentally, the downturn in comic books - and my favourite series, the New Teen Titans - began with the end of the Reagan presidency and the onset of the Bush recession: the Reagan years began with NTT #3, 'The Fearsome Five' and ended with NT #62, 'Titans Plague'. All the best NTT stories (before the Titans Hunt, Lord Chaos and Dark Raven sagas) all took place in the eighties. And in other ways, the New Teen Titans were part of the Reagan era. This is one of the reasons why I look back at Reagan, and the eighties, with the fondest affection - despite all the criticisms I now feel entitled to make as a politically conscious adult.
In contrast to the gloomy nineties, the eighties were an optimistic and cheerful time. One could say that the theme of the decade was triumphalism. Reagan believed that anyone could be anything one wanted, providing that one retained a sense of one's own individuality, worked hard, and wasn't deterred by failure and struggle. In other words, the Reagan credo was that of the Stallone movie, 'Rocky', all over again. In hindsight, the Reagan credo may seem a banal philosophy of life; but at the time, it was prominent in American popular culture. For instance, the legendary producer Don Simpson made a fortune by making films about individual, quirky protagonists who overcame odds to achieve their goals: his three biggest films, co-produced with Jerry Bruckheimer, were Flashdance, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop. And the success stories of the rock stars of the eighties - Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen - embodied the same ethic.
Because Reagan's policies had hauled America out of a recession and into a new economic boom, and because the future seemed bright, the popular songs, movies and TV shows were upbeat and self-assured. And, for anyone who enjoyed the Titans series in the eighties, the book mirrored this self-confidence and zest. Despite the gruelling battles that the Titans fought, and the personal crises they endured, the stories were dizzy and exhilarating. In general, the book was a dream-ride that seemed to go on forever. In contrast to the Titans of the nineties, the subplots and character development went places, and the book had no gloomy, introspective spells (aside from a temporary team break-up - after Starfire returned to Tamaran - which, compared to the disasters of the Titans Hunt, Lord Chaos and Dark Raven arcs, was a joyful affair).
WEALTH AND HEDONISM
During the eighties, Reaganomics wasn't the joke it seems to be to many people now. In 1980, Reagan had won office on a promise to end the recession and high unemployment and inflation of the Carter Era. And it seemed that, by the mid-eighties, Reagan's unusual economic policies were successful. To the chagrin of Reagan's critics, unemployment and inflation fell; the national income rose. Simultaneously, the country entered a new period of decadence and extravagance, financed by frantic borrowing, consumer spending and stock market speculation. For the first time, the cult of physical fitness appeared (which seemed oddly incompatible with the prevalence of cocaine use in the decade). Despite the influence of Reagan's puritanism, the values of the eighties were wealth, beauty, ostentation, frivolity and the enjoyment of life.
It stands to reason that none of the Titans appear to be poor in this decade of wealth, hedonism and 'enterprise culture'. Consider that Kid Flash's parents seem reasonably comfortable middle-class folk; Changeling and Robin are the adopted sons of billionaires; Cyborg's father seems to possess a considerable fortune; Starfire, a successful and famous fashion model, and Wonder Girl, a successful fashion photographer, share a flashy penthouse apartment; Jericho's mother, Adeline Wilson, is wealthy; Terra is a member of the Markovian royal family; only Raven appears to have no visible means of support (but she's ascetic in her lifestyle and tastes anyway; besides which, her father, Trigon the Terrible, is worth trillions in his own dimension). And while it's true that the Titans were responsible, and sometimes troubled, people, none of them seemed bothered by their wealth and status, or portrayed as irresponsible, selfish and corrupt, like the young protagonists in movies like Wall Street and Less than Zero. Billionaires such as Steve Dayton - 'the fifth richest man in the world' - were ordinary, decent folk, upstanding members of the American family. Naturally, this is exactly the view Reagan wanted: in Reaganite ideology, millionaires were to be seen as individuals, not as members of an exploitative and oppressive ruling class.
As for recreation, all the Titans resided in or stayed over at Titans Tower, one of the most expensive and luxuriant of all superhero bases (which featured a pinball and billiard game room which, to my knowledge, was never used). In between adventures, the Titans swum in the Tower's pool; lounged around in the Tower's jacuzzi; played tennis at the Tower's indoor tennis court; flew the T-Jet to the Colorado Rockies and camped out and drank dozens of cans of Coca Cola. (One letter writer complained that one of these 'camping in the Rockies' issues resembled a Coca Cola commercial).
And of course, Titans fans will remember the sub-plot sequences that took place in Manhattan, a city which, to many non-New Yorkers, epitomises success and glamour. For example, Terry Long proposes to Donna at a swish circular restaurant in the Rockefeller Plaza (Donna: 'This is gorgeous, Terry [But] don't you think it's a tad expensive?' Terry: 'Honey, this is New Year's Eve. I didn't care about the cost. This, my beautiful love, is a very special night for me' (NTT #30)). And fans will recall that Dick Grayson and Kory managed to go to some upmarket Manhattan places together; for instance, Dick took Kory out to see a Broadway show in NTT #26 (Dick: 'Kory, everyone swears we'll love "Nine"! It's the year's mega-hit!' Typically, Kory replies: 'Being with you is all I care about, Dick. You should know that!' but adds later: 'Getting dressed up and going to a Broadway show is something special'). While all of the Titans were clean-livers (the Titans were physically fit: Cyborg, Nightwing, Starfire and Wonder Girl in particular liked tough exercise regimens), they seemed to enjoy themselves more than other superheroes.
In the eighties, the world veered dangerously close to a nuclear war, as Reagan abandoned the policy of detenté, built up America's nuclear arsenal, and provoked the USSR, verbally at least, whenever he could. Accordingly, Justice League- writer Gerry Conway explored anti-nuclear themes; Miller's Dark Knight- and Moore's The Watchmen contemplated the prospect of a nuclear Armageddon. Although the fears of nuclear war may seem unfounded now, the possibility seemed a real at the time, because Reagan, a man who half-lived in his own dream world, was in charge of the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Inevitably, a super-powered communist did show up in the Titans stories: Wolfman's old creation, Leonid Kovar, who first appeared as the Russian superhero and secret agent, Star Fire. In TT #18, published in 1968, the Titans and Star Fire team up to catch a criminal; despite some initial hostility and suspicion on both sides, the two ideological enemies come to like and respect one another, as befitting the decade of detenté. But it's no surprise that, in the Reaganite eighties, the next meeting between Star Fire (now 'Red Star') and the Titans should be more acrimonious, in NTT #18, 'A Pretty Girl is like a -- Maladi!'. Because the fans know this brilliant issue so well, I won't detail it here. But it may be of historical interest to recall that Kid Flash shows his strong hatred and distrust of the Soviets in this issue: 'I never trusted him, Dick. You can't trust any of his people. Look what they did in Afghanistan and Angola'.
At the time, the Reagan Doctrine (as it was known) was to support any guerilla movement that resisted "Soviet oppression", real or imaginary. And, after the end of the Reagan era, it became clear that Reagan's freedom-fighters were worse than the communists they opposed. In Angola, terrorist, Jonas Savimbi, who was an honorary member of the Republican Party, went on to kill 500,000 Angolans after 1992. In Afghanistan, the Afghani Mujadeen repelled the Soviets and then turned Afghanistan into a draconian Islamic fundamentalist state (ironically, Wolfman in the Titans series, like Reagan, frequently lambasted vicious Islamic regimes). Because of the Mujadeen, more refugees have fled Afghanistan than any other country.
Reagan also turned Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua into slaughterhouses: death squads, armies or Reagan-funded terrorists (the Nicaraguan Contras) killed people in the tens of thousands. And then there was Reagan's bizarre policy of funding Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who launched attacks against Vietnam-controlled Cambodia from their base in Thailand. But Kid Flash wouldn't have known any of this.
Another, more low-key Soviet-related story occurred in NTT vol. 2 #21, 'On Top of the World', when the Titans unwittingly sabotaged US-Soviet peace talks in Zurich, Switzerland. Afterwards, the Titans were blamed, by a hostile media and public, for increasing the tension between the USSR and the US, and even steering the world closer to a nuclear war.
ARABS AND OTHER TERRORISTS
[Editor's note: I had to edit this section because some of the discussion of Middle Eastern politics were rather provocative. My established rule is that writers' pieces will be published unedited by me; however, it was injudicious of me to not take a closer look at this section, for which I apologize. However, I'm going to leave most of this in because the portrayal of Arabs in the comics is a legitimate topic.]
In 'Hell is the Hybrid' (NTT vol. 2 #24), we see the first appearance and origin of Pteradon, a member of the Hybrid.
'May 15, Qurac airport. 29 hours ago, members of an Arab extremist group took over a trans-continental jumbo jet flying from Israel to Italy and forced it to land in the Middle-Eastern nation of Qurac. After stalled negotiations, an Israeli rescue mission has begun. And in less than two hours action will succeed where fruitless negotiation has failed'.
The captain of the rescue mission, Israel Harel, steals aboard the jet, which is taking off from the airport. Sombrely, he thinks: 'Only one lousy terrorist on board. Still, can't take anything for granted. Those maniacs would kill themselves if they believed it served their cause'. After killing an Arab terrorist, Harel tells the pilot, ' feel free to land at your own pace I've cleared this jet of pests'. Unfortunately, Harel is shot in the back by a dying Arab terrorist who screams 'die, Israeli - die!' (After Harel's body falls to the sea, the corpse is rescued by men working for Steve Dayton, a.k.a Mento; in due course, Dayton's treatment turns Harel into Pteradon, a winged gargoyle with razor-sharp claws.). In this brief sequence, Israelis are brave, dashing and macho, and are ruthless and efficient in dealing with the Arabs, who are terrorists and fanatics, and, in the commando's words, 'pests' who don't deserve to live.
In an earlier issue ('Promethium: Unbound!, NTT #10), we find ruthless Arab terrorists. From a concealed position, two CIA agents are spying on a terrorist meeting 'somewhere in the Middle East': 'Harry, it must be a convention down there every blamed terrorist in the country It's about time we radioed Washington I've got a bad premonition ' In the next panel, two Arabs in full Arab dress have sneaked up behind the pair; Harry is killed. Unaware of this, his colleague says: 'Washington's notified Harry Harry?' To which one of the Arabs replies, 'Your friend is dead, American And you shall join him - now!' and decapitates him.
In 'Jericho's Story' (TNTT #52), President Marlo of Qurac, who looks and dresses like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, kidnaps and tortures Jericho's mother, the mercenary Adeline Wilson. Years ago, Adeline stole information from Marlo, information that concerned neighbouring Kyran's military strength. (Of course, it takes no great brains to work out that Qurac is Iraq, and Kyran is Iran). Now Marlo intends to beat it out of her. Luckily, Jericho comes to the rescue, after fighting off the deadly assassin Cheshire. To judge by this issue, Quraquis, being Arabs, are murderous and stupid; they also dress like the Arabs of the Middle Ages: only Marlo seems to live and dress in the twentieth century and speaks English fluently. But it should be kept in mind that Marlo is a cold brute who's renowned for torturing his opponents. An evil version of Omar Sharif, he possesses a dark sexual allure and treats his women with contempt; while he bullies the helpless Adeline in a Quraqui torture chamber, he reminds her of their romantic past together.
Of all the Titans stories, Brother Blood's classic origin in 'The Book of Blood!' NTT vol. 2, annual #2, features the most insulting depiction of Arabs. In the 1940s, Brother Blood's unlucky mother Anna Resik marries Yakeem Sota, 'High Rajan of the Middle-Eastern country Qurac'. As you can imagine, the Quraquis of the time live and dress like backward Arabs, and practice barbaric Arabic customs. In no time at all, Yakeem shows his true colours. After slapping Anna Resik, he tells her, 'How dare you question me, woman? You are only one of my wives. It is my right as a man to seek another who will please me. One word from you, woman, or your disgusting son, and you will be beheaded! Do you understand your place here now?'
Like every good Arab ruler, Yakeem practises strict Sharia Muslim law: thieves have their hands cut off for stealing sheep. Outlining planned tax hikes to his cabinet, Yakeem tells them, 'The poor will pay of all they have'. One adviser squeals: 'That is insane You can not bleed us any more than you have. There is nothing left to give'. Yakeem replies: 'Yes there is, you old fool. You have your miserable lives'. Whipping out a pistol, Yakeem shoots the man dead and declares, 'And if the rest of your disease-ridded lot wish to keep theirs They will meet my demands! Take him away and inform our most wealthy of the minor increase they are to pay. Did the fool not realise the poor are dispensable But we need the rich to rule?'
While the young Blood is away at Oxford, Yakeem beats Blood's mother to death. Outraged, Blood returns to Qurac and storms into Yakeem's palace, where Yakeem is threatening a half-naked girl with a scimitar, telling her that: 'If you value your life, girl, you won't resist me tonight'. Upon seeing Blood, Yakeem sneers, 'You? She [Blood's mother] did call you? The slut deserved to die. She refused me what was mine'.
It seems that Yakeem treats all white women this way: the young Blood is told earlier that Yakeem 'loves to use those European women. But he always gets rid of them once they no longer please him. And when he tires of your mother, you'll both be executed. Ha ha ha'. (It should be noted that one of the saving graces of this gruesome story is the beautiful art by Jim Baikie, who, sadly, never returned to the Titans).
Interestingly, neither Cyborg nor his friends mention his colour in the Titans series. In contrast, the seventies were the decade of the blaxploitation superhero (like Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; the Falcon; Mal Duncan; the Black Goliath; the Black Panther; Black Lightning; et al.), who was usually politically conscious and mentioned 'the Ghetto' at every conceivable opportunity: eg. 'Man, those dinosaurs are bigger than rats in the Ghetto!'. Unlike his forebears, Cyborg didn't speak like Shaft's Richard Rountree, or deliver consciousness-raising sermons. (As an example of one of these sermons, take Luke Cage's (also known as Luke Cage, Power Man, Hero for Hire) dissertation on the misery of junkies: 'They got no homes, no decent schoolin', no money, no jobs -- no hope! So they shoot up shag, an' then shoot people to get bread to feed their habits An' they live in a society more concerned about cagin' 13-year-olds for life than trying' to give 'em a decent change We're super-heroes, Ororo, not God. We can save humanity from Doc Doom or Galactus -- but not from itself' (X-Men #122)).
Appropriately, a Reaganite view of race-relations appears in Cyborg's classic origin story in TNTT #1. At an early age, the young Victor Stone is befriended by the white-hatin', Afro-wearin', jive-talkin' petty hoodlum Ron. After Ron delivers a speech on the evils of the white man to Victor and tries to persuade him to fight a white gang called the Hawks, Victor's teenage girlfriend Marcy chips in: 'My father was passed over for promotion for some white dude. The color of our skin marks us, Vic. An' like my father says, maybe we should start doin' something about it'. Disapprovingly, Vic says: 'I don't know, honey. This [a fight between white and black street gangs] isn't my kind'a fight'. Some years later, Vic pays a visit to Ron's apartment and asks, 'What's up, Ron?' Ron replies, 'Freedom, man. How we don't have no freedom. How the Honkies keep puttin' us down how we can't get nowhere. So we decided to take over little Miss White Liberty [the Statue of Liberty] - an' tell the world how bad we got it an' how much we want. An' you, little brother, you speak better than us. So we want you to talk for us'. Of course, Victor refuses, and delivers what may be the sum of Ronald Reagan's philosophy on race: ' I proved myself. I worked an' got what I wanted. Anyone can do that, Ron - and the colour of skin doesn't matter one damn bit'. When Vic aborts Ron's plan to blow up the UN building in Manhattan, Vic tells him, 'You're bad news, Ron. You always were. Always blamin' someone else, too. When we were kids, you blamed the adults. When we got older, every problem in the world was caused by the whites. Sickness doesn't know colour, man. And you've been twisted sick right from the start!'
Throughout the story, Victor makes it clear that black extremism is nothing but resentment and hot-air. In the story, black radicalism and white-baiting aren't responses to genuine discrimination and oppression; instead, in the Titans world, as in the Reagan world, they are symptoms of one's own resentments and psychological problems. This isn't to say that Cyborg lacked a social conscience, or that Cyborg was a conservative. On the contrary, to Cyborg, and to Reagan, this view of race relations seemed to be common sense, and what most Americans believed. That is, it was non-ideological.
WAR ON DRUGS
While it's true that comic book cities seem unusually crime-ridden - the Mirror Master or Captain Cold can always be found robbing the local bank - crime seemed to get worse in eighties comic books. A reader finds that junkies, muggers and rapists lurked behind every corner. Generally, this seemed to reflect the times. By the eighties, crime and social decay had worsened after a decade of economic stagnation. In response to this, Reagan launched a series of 'tough on crime' measures designed to get criminals off the street and into jail. In all probability, the most far-reaching of these was a bill which gave mandatory sentences to drug users and dealers, passed by Democrats and Republicans in Congress in 1986. In retrospect, Reagan's measures threatened American social cohesion, with over 2 million Americans in jail (the largest prison population in the world) by the end of the nineties. But Reagan's supporters argued that the toughness reflected the impatience of ordinary conservative voters with liberal crime laws.
In the spirit of the times, Wolfman wrote a four-part New Teen Titans drug-awareness giveaway comic at the request of the Reagan administration: Perez drew the first issue. Like Stan Lee's famous three-part Spiderman anti-drugs arc, which had been written at the request of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the comic book was intended to be anti-drugs propaganda for high school children.
Without question, the other anti-drugs story, 'Runaways' (NTT #26-27, a story arc which culminated in 'The Murder Machine' (NTT annual #2), is the best. As fans know, these issues paint an ugly picture of the world of drug-dealing and New York's underclass; in fact, these particular stories were probably among the most sordid to ever appear in American comic books (even EC in the fifties shied away from mentioning teenage prostitution (both male and female in the story) for example).
Interestingly, vigilantism appeared as one of the themes in this arc: the stories explored the rationality of taking the law into one's own hands after the law had failed. In NTT #26, Adrian Chase tells Robin, 'Laws? Good God, kid! That word is starting to make my skin crawl!' Robin replies, 'But you're a DA -- sworn to uphold the law'. Chase says: 'Maybe I no longer care about the law. Maybe I just care about what's right!'. George Perez then draws a Batman shadow forming behind Chase. Wolfman narrates: 'Those words Robin has heard them before, spoken with the same fanatical intensity'. In 'The Murder Machine', a newsreader has the last line: 'Traditionally, superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Teen Titans do not willingly take lives. Do we have a new kind of hero in town? Or do we simply have yet another killer on the loose? Only time will tell'. (At the end of this story, Robin protects the identity of Scarapelli's killer, an act which breached the superhero code of ethics. And it appears that Adrian Chase, who encourages Robin to breach the law and use vigilante tactics, symbolises Robin's (and by extension, Batman's) dark side).
In the eighties, a New York commuter called Bernard Goetz became an overnight media celebrity after he shot a gang of muggers on a subway train; nobody was sure that the victims of the shooting, all of them black, were muggers. Goetz later admitted that he had carried a gun that night with the intention of looking for trouble. But such were the times, Goetz became a public hero, and a Charles Bronson movie - which was called something like 'Subway Vigilante' - was based on the incident. From what I remember, an enterprising toy company devised a Bernard Goetz board game, in which the player had to make it to the end of the train line through hordes of muggers.
THE END OF THE PARTY
Overall, the Titans creative teams performed brilliantly in the eighties. Luckily for fans, Wolfman kept up the quality of writing and used talented artists Eduardo Barreto and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez to fill the gaping hole left by Perez' departure. It's true that one or two bad issues appeared: I nominate 'Godiva' (NTT vol. 2 Annual #4), which, although it could have been a good story, was appallingly illustrated and irresponsibly edited. But, in the main, the stories and characterisations were consistent, compared to what followed.
I think it's fair to say that the rot set in around the Titans Hunt issues in the nineties; although these stories were initially exciting, in a shallow way, the characters and storylines went into strange directions. As the book progressed, it became worse. Because the Titans' degeneration is well-known to fans, I won't detail it here. But I will say that the decline in the book's fortunes followed the American recession in the early nineties. In 1987, the speculative bubble in stocks had burst. In 1989, Reagan had passed the reins to the unpopular George Bush. For those who were there, the early nineties were, culturally at least, gloomy. Accordingly, the Titans entered a dismal phase. In the Titans letter column, Wolfman told readers that they couldn't expect a cheerful Titans book, because this was the nineties. And, Wolfman added, the nineties were a dark time. (Things didn't pick up - for the Titans at least - after Clinton won office).
What had become clear, by the time of the book's implosion in 1995, was that Wolfman felt bored, alienated, exploited and drained of inspiration. In fact, Wolfman's experience at the hands of the meddling editors at DC was identical to that of his friend Chris Claremont's. (We know that Claremont and Wolfman's styles, and career paths, were similar. Now that a refreshed and more pragmatic Claremont has returned to scripting the X-Men, it would be fitting if Wolfman were to return to scripting the present Titans series, which could use his help). Wolfman is peculiar in that, once he teams up with artists like Barreto, Perez, Garcia Lopez, Baikie, Gil Kane, Gene Colan and other greats, he writes superb stories; even when he paired up with the stock anonymous Marvel artists in his Spiderman phase, he did well. But once he collaborates with an artist like Tom Grummet - who isn't bad, but isn't right for the Titans - or a mediocre artist like Phil Jaaska, he produces shockingly bad work. The two Wolfmans are darkness and light. (But the same could be said for many other great writers, such as Stan Lee). Bad art direction doesn't help, either: I recently bought two old Eduardo Barretto Titans issues and some other eighties comics and found that the layouts in these were clearer and easier to follow than in today's comics, which are explosions of mad, jumbled, flashy pencilling and storytelling.
Strangely enough, although the Clinton era has been one of apparent economic prosperity, the quality and sales of comic books has reached rock-bottom; Clintonomics haven't pulled the comic book industry out of the early nineties recession. And I doubt that one could find a book that reflected Clinton's era in the same way that Wolfman's Titans reflected Reagan's. To judge by the present state of the industry and the current Titans series, it seems that the success, artistic and commercial, of the Titans book won't recur. Instead, the Titans' eighties period remains one of those brief, incandescent moments in comicdom, like Neal Adams' time on The X-Men, or Frank Miller's time on Daredevil. In other words, the highs of the Titans series are never to be repeated; much the same could be said about the Reagan era itself.
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This piece is © 2000 by Rupert Griffin.
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